The Revolution is Being Tweeted
Back in 1989, the cable news satellite image of a young man standing in front of a tank in Beijing's Tiananmen Square heralded a student uprising in Communist China. The revolutionary medium that was cable television was augmented later by video smuggled out of the country and shown on university campuses and TV networks around the globe.
But 20 years later, China is not the democracy of Tiananmen's dreams. The government has revolutionized as a capitalistic economy, no doubt. But it still tries to control what its people see on the Internet and it routinely throws dissidents - including those that dared to commemorate Tiananmen - in jail.
That's a lesson worth remembering as the "Green Revolution" in Iran plays out on computer screens across the globe.
Through social network sites like Twitter and Facebook, people are exchanging news and messages of solidarity. The online activism has been far more aggressive than anything that governments, including that of the United States, have done to influence what is happening on the streets in Iran.
The Iranian government has tried to keep the technological lid on by shutting down Internet sites, restricting cell phone access, and either expelling journalists or keeping them from covering the events.
"They have a very sophisticated system for blocking Internet sites," said Rob Faris, research director for Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. But Twitter, the micro-post site, has been among the hardest for the Iranian government to suppress, he said.
In this age of personal online empowerment, instead of waiting for smuggled video to be broadcast on some outlet's timetable, you are a few clicks away from a menu of revolutionary imagery. The Web is populated with grainy video from marches, online petitions urging Google Maps to update its images of Tehran so viewers can see crowd sizes, and exhortations for the protestors to stay in the streets.
It is personal revolution in real time.
But there is uncertainty about what impact these social mediums are having in keeping the protests going. Early reports focused on Twitter as a galvanizer. But on Thursday, the Toronto-based Sysomos, a social media analysis company, said it could find only 8,600 Twitter users with physical Iranian addresses. That's not an insignificant number, but hardly that of mass protest.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said there already have been two turns in the 'role of Twitter' story.
"Initially, a lot of the discussion was about how Twitter was really propelling and making some of the protests possible," Rosenstiel said. But now, he said, there is evidence that "the amount of Twitter traffic in Iran was actually quite small, and that the notion that this was having a meaningful democratizing effect was overstated."
What may not be overstated, however, is the difficulty governments have in clamping down on information like they once could. That is so especially when new mediums like texting are augmented by old mediums like word-of-mouth, which is what analysts think is happening in Iran.
Rosenstiel said that during the uprisings in Tiananmen and elsewhere, the Chinese government tried to post a soldier at every fax machine in the country to prevent dissidents from using them. During the Cold War, "every typewriter in the Soviet Union was registered," he said.
What is going on in Iran, he said, "is very much like what happened in the organizing of the Islamic revolution in the 1970s and even more so in the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late '80s."
In Eastern Europe, videotapes shown in church basements explained what was happening with Poland's Solidarity movement. Abetted by satellite reports that could be downloaded outside of government control, "it created a kind of domino effect" of democratization throughout the region, Rosenstiel said.
"What we know over time is that new technologies tend to democratize information," he said.
But that does not always lead to democratization of government, as the Chinese example shows.
Faris said that in Iran, "this is a kind of moving line for how far the government can go in repressing free expression, and going too far comes at a cost. There is a loss of legitimacy involved.
"This thing in Tehran is not going to be decided by technology, but by the power of the government vs. the courage of the people," Faris said. "Twitter is not going to decide this."