As fallout from the Iranian presidential election wanes, it is important to reflect on the debated role of social media tool such as Twitter in the post-election events. On one side, some argue that Twitter provides a powerful tool for organizing a grass-roots movement. Others insist both that Twitter is playing a small role within Iran due the government's censorship and that most information about Iran posted on Twitter originated from more traditional media. I conducted a detailed analysis of approximately 500,000 posts on Twitter pertaining to the Iran election and it is clear that many observers miss the most important point: the technology, information, and news revolution that began with the advent of blogging came to full fruition in Iran's current uprising.
Unlike all previous technologies in the history of news and communication, Twitter (and sister technologies like Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube) provides concerned individuals and citizen-journalists both a source of disseminating news content and a means of driving news coverage. With previous technologies, citizens largely lacked either the ability to disseminate news or the capacity to drive the extent of its coverage. For example, a resident could inform a newspaper about a rally taking place, but the newspaper made the decision about what to print. Moreover, unlike newspapers and radio, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube enable the reporting of news that epitomizes the real-time, unfiltered, and interactive content that so many people desire. This is not reality TV, but reality news. While some might contend that the dawn of blogs provided citizens the same power that those in Iran now wield, blogs in a pre-YouTube age generally lacked the ability to disseminate the type of video that captivated audiences and made news. Blogs also lacked a unified location like Twitter for discussing and promoting news. This inhibited reporters of compelling content from disseminating it beyond a small community. However, the confluence of new technologies, reality news, and its author's ability to drive a story is virtually unparalleled in the history of communication. This is best epitomized in the tragic case of Neda Agha Soltan.
In the early afternoon of Saturday June 20th, a few Twitter users began posting links to a video showing an unnamed woman dying in the streets of Tehran after being shot by government-backed forces. Despite the video's gruesome nature, between 1:30 and 2pm EST, the number of posts containing links to the video or comments about it quickly exploded. Within another hour, Twitter users propelled the video onto larger platforms such as the Huffington Post, which carried the story after receiving numerous emails about it and observing its strong interest on Twitter. As the world began to wonder about the identity of the woman in the video, Twitter broke the news of her name and life story. Hours before any traditional news organization, website, or blog identified the woman as Neda Agha Soltan, a user on Twitter identified her by name. By late that day, Twitter teemed with references to Neda. The same individuals who broke the news on Twitter and YouTube drove it mainstream. Nightly television news programs led with the story Monday night and President Obama alluded to Neda in his press conference Tuesday afternoon. The fact that Neda's name and story first appeared on Twitter is a strong rebuke to the countless critics of Twitter who demean it as containing no original and reliable news.
The analysis of over half-a-million Twitter posts about the Iran election contains many other examples of news appearing first on Twitter or important information being disseminated through Twitter. For example, before many protests in Iran, Twitter traffic containing the location of the protests spiked. Likewise, as protests turned increasingly violent on Saturday, posts about embassies in Tehran accepting the wounded increased 100 fold within a matter of a few hours.
As events unfold in Iran on a smaller scale than in the days immediately after the June 12th election, legitimate questions remain about the role of Twitter in the rapidly evolving media landscape. But whatever the outcome of the revolution movement in Iran, another interconnected revolution came to fruition in the streets of Tehran. With the flowering of a News 2.0 era, citizen journalists and concerned members of society can disseminate important information, report serious news, and drive its widespread dissemination like never before.