To Twitter or Not to Twitter

“It was Sullivan who famously proclaimed ‘The Revolution Will Be Twittered’ and called Twitter ‘the critical tool for organizing the resistance in Iran,’” writes Evgeny Morozov a Foreign Policy blogger and Georgetown University Fellow. “It is easy to see why so many pundits accepted this narrative: they had seen something similar before,” he continues, referring to the “Velvet Revolutions” of Eastern Europe during the eighties and nineties.

However, Morozov quickly points out the fundamental flaw in such pre-emptive victories:

“In reality…this new media ecosystem [like Facebook and Twitter] is very much like the old game of ‘Telephone,’ in which errors steadily accumulate in the transmission process, and the final message has nothing in common with the original.”

Morozov’s critique – in the Fall 2009 issue of Dissent – on the opinion that Iran’s protest movement is somehow catalyzed through the conduits of social networking would make any postmodern thinker at least grin. However, Morozov posits that it is wishful thinking and arrogance on the side of Western democracy exporters who believe that the gadgets and toys for capitalist mass consumption can be seriously considered a source for “real change”.

According to Morozov, Twitter and Facebook severely limit global audiences from receiving the “entire picture” of an ongoing situation. Contexts – important to make informed decisions in everyday life – are reduced to 140 characters or at best brief allusions. People end up filling this lack of context with their own subjective interpretations, which further pollutes “reality” or distorts it altogether in order to fit a predefined Western conception.

Furthermore, Twitter and Facebook undermine consensual and verifiable truth by having to compete with viral “mis-“ or “dis-information”. These parallel narratives, repackaged or “retweeted” over and over, are avenues where extreme political viewpoints can seep into the public sphere by masking their source. In other words, groups with ulterior political ambitions can mask their spin as truth by going “viral” through cyberspace.  Therefore, as American lawmakers become more familiarized or connected with the collection of inaccurate information, they prescribe inadequate or wrong solutions that only exacerbate the situation in Iran.

Iranian authorities have also quickly become savvy to the “democratic” media by being able to access a library of open source information on dissenters that they use to crackdown on opposition members, protestors, and their families by using it for intimidation or “evidence” in show trials. With access to vast swaths of open-source knowledge, networks, and affiliations, Iranian authorities can run their country with an iron fist—akin to a national prison system where “order” is maintained through computer surveillance monitors.

Worst of all, Twitter and Facebook mollify mass outrage to cookie-cutter, bourgeoisie protesting:

“What do 100 million people invited to join the Facebook group “100 Million Facebook members for Democracy in Iran” expect to get out of their membership? Is it just a gigantic exercise in collective transcontinental wishful thinking? Do they really expect that their “slacktivism”—a catchy new word that describes such feel-good but useless Internet activism—would have some impact? Slacktivists may successfully grapple with corporate PR outfits that have increasingly grown fond of polluting and astroturfing cyberspace; whether they will be able to topple authoritarian governments is less obvious.”

While mass youth and student protesters engage in real, mortal combat with their brutal, authoritarian state, it is disappointing to know that people are patting themselves on the back for the witty comment they put on their Facebook status.

However, Morozov does not place blame completely at the doorstep of cyber enthusiasts and well wishers of a new egalitarian (Western) world order, but also Iranian-American bloggers who guide much of the general “cyber-opinion” due to the traditional media blackout in Iran:

“Thus, to blame Andrew Sullivan for first dreaming up the ‘Twitter Revolution,’ we have to blame a bevy of English-speaking Iranian bloggers who had shaped his opinion (many of them from the Iranian diaspora, with strong pro-Western feelings—why else blog in English?), as well as Farsi-speaking bloggers in Tehran who had shaped the opinion of the English-speaking Iranians, and so forth. Factor in various political biases, and it becomes clear that what Andrew Sullivan is “seeing” might be radically different from what is actually happening.”

To put it simply, popular bloggers have no alternative other than to use Iranian-Americans as the “next best source” on Iran – possibly due to perceived ethnic affiliations with Iran – the information that is acquired is often polluted with individual biases and ’79 Revolution baggage to merit neutral, credible fact.

However, as Morozov correctly concludes that Twitter and Facebook were fleeting in catalyzing a “revolution” in Iran, he skips discussing the implications of social media on the United States. Traditional media and political and social networks in the United States have evolved tremendously when it has come to discussing Iran. Not long ago the country was more or less a non-issue or – at best – just another country to invade. Over the last year pragmatism has entered the sphere of debate where clear distinctions are made between Iran’s people and their government, potential future outcomes in “dealing” with the country are considered, and the diaspora is no longer content in sitting and waiting for Iran to change. They are finding as many avenues as possible to support positive, peaceful change.

Twitter and Facebook did not cause the United States to think differently, the Iranian people did. Twitter and Facebook simply allowed for the global dissemination of information while the Iranian authorites tried so hard to keep a media blackout.

Therefore, it would be disingenuous to conclude that individuals might (or should) think that social media is a means to an end. However, it cannot be overlooked that it has the power to signal the genuine discontent that exists inside and outside of Iran.

Posted By Bardia Mehrabian

    2 Responses to “To Twitter or Not to Twitter”

  1. Pirouz says:

    Good post, Bardia. I share many of Morozov’s observations.

  2. Heather R says:

    Bardia,
    As you know, I have been seeking people’s views on Morozov’s article, particularly the views of Iranians/Iranian-Americans. Therefore, I am delighted to have read your perspectives. What I particularly appreciate is that you present a third perspective to this debate that I believe is essential to consider, specifically your final two paragraphs.

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7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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