Like pretty much everyone else, I’ve been wavering between nervous anticipation and cautious optimism, between excitement about the possibilities made available by social media and anger at what appears to be a stolen election, when it comes to Iran. It’s impossible to predict, of course, what will happen as a result of these massive street protests, and while there are reasons to be excited about the popular expression of opposition to what appears to be manipulated election results, there are also reasons to remain apprehensive. But it’s also impossible to think about the events of the last few days without thinking about how they have been represented in various media outlets and how these news stories have been relayed to the West via various social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, often at some personal risk to the people who are sending out information when western media outlets have so little access.
I think it’s easy to criticize the cable news channels for paying so little attention to the story–devoting an hour of time this morning to a fleeting crisis in which an airline pilot died while en route from Brussels to Newark seemed to encapsulate these limits–just as its equally easy to celebrate uncritically technological tools such as Twitter and Facebook. Western news outlets are limited, of course, to filing one news report a day by the Iranian government, so the role of usual news sources is even further complicated. Similarly, I think it’s important to remain aware that Mir Hussein Mousavi may not be, as Tom Watson argues, a beacon of social change. Still, as Lance Mannion observes, what’s happening in Iran seems to be less about Mousavi than it is about the actions of the Iranians themselves. Lance cites this eyewitness report, sent through Juan Cole, from an eyewitness who describes the “orderly disorder” of the marchers and the ease and speed with which information is disseminated.
I’ll admit that I’m still somewhat unsure of where to begin when following these events as they unfold. Because these events are unfolding essentially in real time, often while many of us in the US are asleep or at work, and because of the sheer volume of information that is out there beyond the majornews outlets, it is impossible to process everything and even more difficult to know what to do other than watch and wait. PBS’s Media Shift blog, true to its expanded emphasis on social media, has a fairly thorough list of resources on Iran and on the powerful uses of social media out there, including Mark Glaser’s discussion of the #CNNfail and #IranElection hashtags on Twitter (although even these hashtags often become cluttered by overwhelming noise), as well as links to Iran election protest videos and Andrew Sullivan’s blog post arguing that “the revolution will be twittered.”
All of these accounts remind me of the challenges we face in the new social media landscape. Sullivan, for example, celebrates the ability of people to improvise and get around the traditional filters, declaring that “You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.” While I think there is something genuinely new here, I do wonder about past precedents: the use of fax machines by students involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or the use of copiers during the Vietnam protests. I do think there is something quantitatively and qualitatively different here when it comes to the speed and spread of information and the ability for amateur reporting to reach mass audiences. But I think we need to be careful when equating the ability to tweet, blog, and Flickr with political freedom.
At the same time, I find myself thinking about the challenges these social media tolls present to us as readers, viewers, consumers, and in turn, linkers, posters, and interpreters of this information. Chris O’Brien touches on some of these issues in a broader discussion of social media in his discussion of the “new obligations of readers” and about his own admitted “reluctance” to engage with the comments to stories. Of course, when we are all potential writers ourselves, these obligations change. Can we “participate” in what is happening in Iran? Is it meaningful for millions of Twitterers to color their avatars green in solidarity with the protesters? How do we filter through these many sources of information? In the last hour or so, I’ve now heard CNN’s Wolf Blitzer use the phrase “watching history unfold” at least three or four times to describe our relationship to the events in Tehran, and while I feel essentially powerless to do much to change the situation there, that phrase no longer seems adequate to describe how we engage with world events, as we tweet, blog, and forward information and express our support for democratization. The phrasing is too passive, an echo of televised news. Something different is happening, and the old, passive terminology seems inadequate to describe it. But I think the new tools raise thousands of questions as well. I’ve been writing this post mentally for several days now, and even as I write I find myself pulled in any number of contradictory directions, half listening to CNN, intently checking Twitter and and blogs, trying to make sense not only of Iran but also of the social media tools that have become such an important part of this story.