#Revolution Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations 1

Document Sample
#Revolution  Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations 1 Powered By Docstoc
					#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                             1


        After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, students at the University of

Michigan used fax machines to distribute western news reports to institutions inside

China including universities, hospitals and government offices.1 More than two decades

later, information has the same power to subvert repressive regimes and technology the

same power to evade censorship, but users are now connected via the internet with

minimal infrastructure and no institutional oversight. With the launch of WordPress and

MySpace in 2003, Facebook and Flickr in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006,

the first decade of the twenty-first century ushered in an era of social media and online

social networking. These sites, coupled with the widespread availability of consumer

electronics with Internet capabilities (such as mobile phones) and free, open wireless

connections has resulted in the creation of social networks that transcend geographic

boundaries and allow users from all over the globe to share everything from comments

and opinions to videos and images.

        As these networks connect more and more people, what impact, if any, do they

have during geopolitical conflict? In June 2009, Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister of

Britain, made the provocative remark that, "you cannot have Rwanda again because

information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the

public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.” In the

Prime Minister’s estimation, as a result of this phenomenon, "Foreign policy can no

longer be the province of just a few elites."2 One view of social networks, epitomized by

Brown, is that the free transfer of information serves as a global watchdog that can orient

        1
           "Fax Against Fictions." Time, 19 June 1989
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,957964,00.html (8 January 2011).
         2
           Katharine Viner, "Internet has changed policy forever, says Gordon Brown." The Guardian, 19
June 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/jun/19/gordon-brown-internet-foreign-policy (28
December 2010).
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                                2


the attention of policymakers where it is most needed, rather than where it is most

convenient. The social network is a unifying, democratizing organization that has the

potential to push for positive change. Another perspective views social networks as

merely bombarding an already desensitized and overwhelmed audience with specious,

unverifiable information. The reality lies somewhere in the middle; as the coverage of

Iran’s disputed election in 2009 illustrated, social media is a tool that during a conflict is

used mostly by outsiders rather than insiders, but still influences the course of events and

connects a global audience to the conflict in a more personal way.

        On 12 June 2009, incumbent traditionalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared

the victor in Iran’s presidential election. The announcement sparked widespread

condemnation and protest by opposition candidates and their supporters who accused the

government of electoral fraud. The ensuing demonstrations turned violent as government

militias set up roadblocks, arrested and detained demonstrators, and dispersed protests

with water cannons and tear gas.3 At the same time, Iranian authorities forbade foreign

journalists from covering the protests and rallies, claiming that international coverage

was unfairly biased against the regime.4 Many journalists were either expelled or placed

under house arrest.5

        As a result of the dearth of information available via official channels, the primary

source of content during the coverage of the conflict was video, photos and reports posted

online supposedly by Iranians via social media. Twitter, a microblogging service that

        3
             Lindsey Hilsum and Peter Beaumont. "Police force Iran protest off streets." The Guardian, 20
June 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/21/iran-protest-mousavi-khamenei (27 December
2010).
           4
             "Iran bans international journalists from covering rallies." 16 June 2009.
http://articles.cnn.com/2009-06-16/world/iran.journalists.banned_1_vali-asr-square-supporters-
rallies?_s=PM:WORLD (27 December 2010).
           5
             "[Video] Jon Stewart Mocks CNN's Iran Coverage." The Huffington Post, 17 June 2009.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/17/jon-stewart-mocks-cnns-ir_n_216638.html (3 January 2010).
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                                3


allows users to broadcast messages of 140 characters or less, played the most infamous

role. Because of its “open-ended design” and capability to broadcast via both Internet and

SMS (text message), Twitter is particularly difficult for censors to block completely.6

During the second half of June 2009, a search for “Iran election” on Twitter revealed

dozens of new posts and re-posts every second.7 According to social media blog

Mashable, anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 tweets featuring the word “Iran” were

broadcast every hour. The highest volume of “Iran” tweets occurred on June 16 with

221,744 tweets recorded in one hour.8 In fact, Twitter had originally scheduled

maintenance for June 16 that would have caused a service disruption. The volume of

information being received via Twitter was so prodigious that the United States’ State

Department contacted Twitter and asked them to reschedule in order to avoid downtime.

Twitter acquiesced and shifted their planned upgrade so the downtime occurred at 2PM

PT which corresponded to the middle of the night in Iran.910 In addition, major news

programs like CNN, Fox and MSNBC began reporting material and showing media

retrieved via Twitter and other sites like YouTube, Flickr and Facebook.

           The Iranian situation, now sometimes labelled a “Twitter Revolution,” illustrates

the role of social media in disseminating information in the midst of a crisis and gives

insight into what social media did and did not contribute to the Iranian situation. A year

and a half after the demonstrations, many experts have pointed out that social media

           6
               Yigal Schleifer, "Why Iran's Twitter Revolution is Unique." Christian Science Monitor, 19 June
2009, 6.
           7
           "Twitter Links Iran Protesters to Outside World." Fox News, 16 June 2009.
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,526403,00.html (28 December 2010).
         8
           Ben Parr, "Mindblowing #IranElection Stats: 221, 744 Tweets Per Hour at Peak." , 17 June 2009.
http://mashable.com/2009/06/17/iranelection-crisis-numbers/ (28 December 2010).
         9
           Sue Pleming, "U.S. State Department speaks to Twitter over Iran." Reuters, 16 June 2009.
http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSWBT01137420090616 (28 December 2010).
         10
            Lev Grossman, "Iran's Protests: Why Twitter is the Medium of the Movement." Time, 17 June
2009 http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1905125,00.html (8 January 2011).
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                               4


played an extremely limited role in actually organizing protests inside Iran. For example,

Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet

and Society, believes that, “it's more conventional things like word-of-mouth and phone

calls that really bring massive numbers of people into the streets."11 Some, like Foreign

Policy blogger Evgeny Morozov, suggest that organizational messages via social media

carry a substantial risk of being observed by vigilant authorities.12

           Research done by Zuckerman on the other “Twitter Revolution” of 2009 in

Moldova supports these assertions. While it received much less attention in North

American media and occurred on a smaller scale, the Moldovan case is strikingly similar

to that of Iran: in April, thousands in Moldova protested the re-election of the incumbent

Communist Party, and Twitter was widely credited for publicizing and even facilitating

the unrest. However, according to Zuckerman’s analysis, "of the 700 people who were

twittering on the Moldovan protests, less than 200 were in Moldova at the time."13 In

both examples from 2009, there is considerable evidence that social media was not used

to mobilize or organize popular resistance in the country embroiled in conflict.

           As for the importance of social media as a source of information about the

conflict, there are also doubts about the magnitude of information that was actually

received via social media during the Iranian demonstrations. One study suggested that

there are only about 8,600 Twitter users whose profiles even indicate they are from




           11
                Joel Schectman, "Iran's Twitter Revolution? Maybe Not Yet." BusinessWeek Online, 18 June
2009, 2.
           12
            Morozov, Evgeny. "Iran Elections: A Twitter Revolution." The Washington Post, 17 June 2009.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2009/06/17/DI2009061702232.html (29
December 2010).
         13
            Joel Schectman, "Iran's Twitter Revolution? Maybe Not Yet." BusinessWeek Online, 18 June
2009, 2.
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                               5


Iran.14 Since users are free to select the location that they report, even this number is

impossible to verify. Another analysis of 79,000 tweets related to the protests found one

third to be “re-tweets,” that is, repetitions of previously posted information. The

relatively high rate of re-tweeting on this subject compared to others could suggest that a

relatively small amount of original information was being disseminated, and was simply

being spread at an above average rate.15

           Finally, the veracity and authenticity of information received from social media

sites is almost always questionable. Users are submitting information anonymously and

can misrepresent their identities and locations, and even fabricate content. The citizen

journalists of social media are lacking the oversight, ethics and accountability

mechanisms that (at least theoretically) govern the traditional news media. In fact,

concerns like these prompted CNN to add a graphic to the screen when they covered

information from social media sites that proclaimed the content to be “unverified

material.”16

           While these concerns are substantial, they do not totally negate the role that social

media played in the conflict. Rather, they suggest that the importance of social media lies

not in the facilitation of a protest movement, but rather in the global mobilization of

public interest in the conflict. Even if the amount of verifiable journalistic information

received from Iran via social media is relatively small, the images that caught public




           14
                Joel Schectman, "Iran's Twitter Revolution? Maybe Not Yet." BusinessWeek Online, 18 June
2009, 2.
           15
          ibid
           16
          "[Video] Jon Stewart Mocks CNN's Iran Coverage." The Huffington Post, 17 June 2009.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/17/jon-stewart-mocks-cnns-ir_n_216638.html (3 January 2010).
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                          6


attention galvanized a movement of interest in the crisis as well as support for the Iranian

opposition.

         Since social media allows for individuals to organize and associate with little or

no cost, it has a profound impact on modern group dynamics. Clay Shirky, professor at

New York University and leading commentator on social media, discussed this

phenomenon in his book, Here Comes Everybody: the Power of Organizing Without

Organizations (2008). Social networks are particularly powerful because they allow

groups to overcome what Shirky defines as the “institutional dilemma.” This dilemma

arises because institutions are required to expend resources to manage their resources,

and as a result, there is always a disparity between what an institution is capable of in

theory and in practice (and the larger the group or institution, the larger the disparity).17

Thus, society forms those groups that it can afford, rather than the groups that it wants or

needs (Shirky, 22).18

         The bloggers, Twitterers and amateur commentators that united around the

conflict in Iran provide an example of what Shirky calls “self-assembled groups”. Protest

movements are not a new phenomenon, but this one was able to be particularly

independent of institutional oversight or resources due to the social network. Individuals

were able to show solidarity with the Iranian protesters essentially for free. For example,

an online application at http://helpiranelection.com allowed users to add a green ribbon to

their profile or turn their Twitter avatar green, the official colour of Iran’s opposition. The

site claims that over 160,000 people have participated. Similarly, #iranelection on Twitter

led users to tips about creating proxy sites to help Iranian bloggers circumvent the

         17
              Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. (2008),
19-20.
         18
              Ibid, 22
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                            7


authorities.19 At one point in June, tens of thousands of Twitter users changed their

locations to “Tehran” in an effort to confuse Iranian censors.20 Twitter was even used to

recruit participants in denial of service (DoS) attacks against Iranian government and pro-

government websites.21 DoS attacks flood servers with more requests than they can

process, causing web sites and resources to become unavailable. While it is the efficacy

of these DoS attack attempts is unclear, Twitter gave the ‘hacktivists’ access to a much

larger base than traditional hacker web forums.22

        This digital mobilization is remarkable not only for its scale in the digital realm,

but also because it produced tangible effects on the way that the conflict was handled in

traditional news media and in diplomatic spheres. In particular, American cable news

(particularly CNN) was criticized strongly in social media spheres. Despite the fact that

CNN had journalists, including chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour,

in Iran through June 13, the situation did not initially inspire “wall-to-wall” or “breaking

news” coverage.23 Frustrated by a perceived lack of interest in the post-election

demonstrations, Tweeters created the hash tag “#cnnfail” to express their discontent. The

hash tag became one of the top ten Twitter trends in June 2009 and spawned a live

streaming website, “CNNfail.com: CNN and the social WEdia Revolution”

(http://cnnfail.com/). This resulted in pointed questions being posed to both CNN



        19
            Helen A.S Popkin, "Social networks support Iran election protests." MSNBC, 17 June 2009.
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31409312/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/ (4 January 2011).
         20
            Matthew Weaver, "Iran's 'Twitter revolution' was exaggerated, says editor." The Guardian, 9
June 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/09/iran-twitter-revolution-protests (8 January 2011).
         21
            Jaikumar Vijayan, "Twitter Plays Key Role in DoS attacks in Iran." ComputerWorld, 18 June
2009. http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9134561/Twitter_plays_key_role_in_DoS_attacks_in_Iran
(8 January 2011).
         22
            Ibid
         23
            Brian Stelter, "Real-Time Criticism of CNN's Iran Coverage." New York Times, 14 June 2009.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/business/media/15cable.html (14 January 2011).
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                             8


reporters and executives, and prompted an on-air response from Rick Sanchez.24 In fact,

on the Saturday when #cnnfail hit the Top Ten Twitter Trends, CNN.com began featuring

video of the Iranian protests, and by Sunday CNN’s official Twitter feed was tweeting

information.25 While coverage would have arguably increased as violence continued to

rise in Iran, the speed with which cable news reacted following the #cnnfail criticism and

the subsequent volume of coverage supports the argument that the networks were

responding to the online demand for attention to the crisis.

        Did this outpouring of interest and subsequent pressure on the media in turn affect

government responses to the situation in Iran, as Tony Blair’s remark suggests? That link

is more tenuous due to the American government’s delicate position on Iran in 2009.

After pledging to work with the Iranian government, President Obama was almost

immediately confronted with the dubious election results and subsequent repression of

civil unrest by Ahmadinejad. This resulted in a “subdued response” from the

administration.26 Nevertheless, global attention was focused on the situation, and the

State Department facilitated this with their request that Twitter delay its scheduled

maintenance.

        As the Iranian case illustrates, social media and social networks are clearly used

to mobilize and inform their participants during a conflict. This raises the question, who

can consumers trust now that the public is increasingly bombarded with information and


        24
            Evgeny Morozov. "Iran Elections: A Twitter Revolution." The Washington Post, 17 June 2009.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2009/06/17/DI2009061702232.html (29
December 2010).
         25
            Taylor, Marisa. "Twitterers Protest #CNNFail on Iran Coverage." The Wall Street Journal, 15
June 2009. http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/06/15/twitterers-protest-cnnfail-on-iran-coverage/ (14 January
2011).
         26
            Scott Wilson, "Muted Response Reflects U.S. Diplomatic Dilemma." The Washington Post, 15
June 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/14/AR2009061402684.html
(14 January 2011).
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                                           9


digital rallying cries? With the incredible volume of information there is a risk that users

become cynical, disinterested or desensitized. Encouraging efforts are being made to

address this concern; for example, in 2008 the News Literacy Project was founded as an

educational initiative in which active and retired journalists support curricula that “teach

students the critical thinking skills they need to be smarter and more frequent consumers

and creators of credible information across all media and platforms.”27 In addition,

traditional news outlets both from print journalism (The New York Times, Washington

Post) and cable networks (CNN, MSNBC) are adapting their online presence to play a

stronger role contributing websites, podcasts, blogs from correspondents as well as their

own Twitter feeds.

        While the characterization of social media as a new tool for revolutionaries is

perhaps exaggerated, in the midst of a conflict the social network produces a sense of

solidarity and involvement that transcends geography. Users can mobilize without ever

meeting, and outpourings of support do register with both traditional media and

governmental institutions. Even if the conflict remains “traditional,” the conversation is

now digital, and the social network has changed the way the rest of the world perceives,

records and responds to turmoil. As with most technologies, the effects are mixed: the

social network can overload users with unreliable information, but it also has the

potential to illuminate serious conflicts and encourage action.




        27
          "Mission." The News Literacy Project, n.d. http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/about/ (8
January 2011).
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                          10



                                     Works Cited



"Fax Against Fictions." Time, 19 June 1989
     http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,957964,00.html (8 January
     2011).

Grossman, Lev. "Iran's Protests: Why Twitter is the Medium of the Movement." Time, 17
     June 2009 http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1905125,00.html (8
     January 2011).

Hilsum, Lindsey, and Peter Beaumont. "Police force Iran protest off streets." The
     Guardian, 20 June 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/21/iran-
     protest-mousavi-khamenei (27 December 2010).

"Iran bans international journalists from covering rallies." , 16 June 2009.
      http://articles.cnn.com/2009-06-16/world/iran.journalists.banned_1_vali-asr-square-
      supporters-rallies?_s=PM:WORLD (27 December 2010).

"Mission." The News Literacy Project, n.d. http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/about/
     (8 January 2011).

Morozov, Evgeny. "Iran Elections: A Twitter Revolution." The Washington Post, 17 June
    2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
    dyn/content/discussion/2009/06/17/DI2009061702232.html (29 December 2010).

Parr, Ben. "Mindblowing #IranElection Stats: 221, 744 Tweets Per Hour at Peak.", 17
      June 2009. http://mashable.com/2009/06/17/iranelection-crisis-numbers/ (28
      December 2010).

Pleming, Sue. "U.S. State Department speaks to Twitter over Iran." Reuters, 16 June
     2009. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSWBT01137420090616 (28 December
     2010).

Popkin, Helen A.S. "Social networks support Iran election protests." MSNBC, 17 June
     2009. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31409312/ns/technology_and_science-
     tech_and_gadgets/ (4 January 2011).

Schleifer, Yigal. "Why Iran's Twitter Revolution is Unique." Christian Science Monitor,
     19 June 2009, 6.

Schectman, Joel. "Iran's Twitter Revolution? Maybe Not Yet." BusinessWeek Online, 18
     June 2009, 2.
#Revolution: Traditional Conflicts and Digital Conversations                             11


Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.
     (2008). Penguin: New York, New York.

Stelter, Brian. "Real-Time Criticism of CNN's Iran Coverage." New York Times, 14 June
      2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/business/media/15cable.html (14
      January 2011).

Taylor, Marisa. "Twitterers Protest #CNNFail on Iran Coverage." The Wall Street
     Journal, 15 June 2009. http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/06/15/twitterers-protest-
     cnnfail-on-iran-coverage/ (14 January 2011).

"Twitter Links Iran Protesters to Outside World." Fox News, 16 June 2009.
     http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,526403,00.html (28 December 2010).

"[Video] Jon Stewart Mocks CNN's Iran Coverage." The Huffington Post, 17 June 2009.
     http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/17/jon-stewart-mocks-cnns-
     ir_n_216638.html (3 January 2010).

Vijayan, Jaikumar. "Twitter Plays Key Role in DoS attacks in Iran." ComputerWorld, 18
       June 2009.
       http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9134561/Twitter_plays_key_role_in_Do
       S_attacks_in_Iran (8 January 2011).

Viner, Katharine . "Internet has changed policy forever, says Gordon Brown." The
     Guardian, 19 June 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/jun/19/gordon-
     brown-internet-foreign-policy (28 December 2010).

Weaver, Matthew. "Iran's 'Twitter revolution' was exaggerated, says editor." The
    Guardian, 9 June 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/09/iran-twitter-
    revolution-protests (8 January 2011).

Wilson, Scott. "Muted Response Reflects U.S. Diplomatic Dilemma." The Washington
     Post, 15 June 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
     dyn/content/article/2009/06/14/AR2009061402684.html (14 January 2011).