What Do We Really Know About Iran’s Election?

I feel like I’m living on the cusp of the world Orson Scott Card created with Ender’s Game, a world where anonymous internet posters Locke and Demosthenes shaped global public opinion. Today, public opinion is increasingly shaped by discourse on the Internet, although we don’t have two clear antagonists in the online public sphere. Case in point: Iran and Twitter.

But what, exactly, do we know about Twitter and the Iranian election?

We know that opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and his supporters have used Twitter as a platform to claim that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole last week’s election. We do not know if these claims are accurate, although the Guardian Council is investigating 646 poll complaints.

We know that Twitter has helped spread false information: that 3 million people protested Monday in Tehran (rather tens or hundreds of thousands, according to newspaper reports); that Mousavi was put under house arrest (he appeared at the protests); and that, last Saturday, the president of the election monitoring committee declared the election invalid (not reported by any news organization although the committee is investigating hundreds of claims).

We know that Twitter has helped spread one-sided information. For example, there has been little mention of demonstrations supporting Ahmadinejad or an independent poll “which suggested a two-to-one level of popular support” Ahmadinejad over Mousavi.

We know that the blogosphere — and thus Twitter — has also spread two different sets of voting tallies supposedly “leaked” from the Interior Ministry. One set claims Ahmedinejad received only 28 percent of the vote, and another says he got only 13 percent. What we don’t know: is this sophisticated misinformation, a la Card’s Locke and Demosthenes, or is either data point grounded in truth?

We know that western intellectuals are positioning Twitter as the technological equivalent of the second coming. Just look at the headlines: Social networks support Iran election protests, Iran Election Dispute Plays Out Online, Twitter Serves As Lifeline For Iranian Citizens; Pushes Back Downtime, Clinton says Twitter is important for Iranian free speech, Up To 200000 Tweets About Iran Sent An Hour, The Iranian Revolution Will Not Be Televised — It’ll Be Twittered (the verb should be tweeted!), In Iran, cyber-activism without the middle-man, and McCain: ‘We Must Be A Symbol Of Hope For The Iranian People’ (a reminder: this is the political philosophy that got us into Iraq).

Injecting A Note of Reason In a Sea of Emotion
Analysts, such as Stratfor, note that the English-speaking population of Iran’s cities form a distinct minority within the culture (a culture, by the way, where there is no single language spoken by 100% of the population, according to the CIA Factbook).

Limited to information on Iran from English-speaking opponents of the regime, both groups of Iran experts got a very misleading vision of where the revolution was heading — because the Iranian revolution was not brought about by the people who spoke English. It was made by merchants in city bazaars, by rural peasants, by the clergy — people Americans didn’t speak to because they couldn’t. This demographic was unsure of the virtues of modernization and not at all clear on the virtues of liberalism. From the time they were born, its members knew the virtue of Islam, and that the Iranian state must be an Islamic state.

Americans and Europeans have been misreading Iran for 30 years. Even after the shah fell, the myth has survived that a mass movement of people exists demanding liberalization — a movement that if encouraged by the West eventually would form a majority and rule the country. We call this outlook “iPod liberalism,” the idea that anyone who listens to rock ‘n’ roll on an iPod, writes blogs and knows what it means to Twitter must be an enthusiastic supporter of Western liberalism. Even more significantly, this outlook fails to recognize that iPod owners represent a small minority in Iran — a country that is poor, pious and content on the whole with the revolution forged 30 years ago.

American intellectuals, represented in this case by NYU professor and author Clay Shirky (a man I know and respect), characterize such claims as “Ahmadinejad supporters” who are “try[ing] to damn the dissidents.” The Daily Kos disses by characterizing questioning as a Twitter “backlash.”

I disagree. In the case of Stratfor, they are trying to use reason, rather than emotion, as a guide to their analysis about what’s happening on the other side of the world, events happening not in an information vacuum but in an information deluge of unknown veracity.

Thus, the essence of what we are talking about are beliefs, not facts. There are very few facts coming out of Iran, and that is a bad thing. But it’s not enough to read a tweet or a blog post and accept it as unconditionally true.

The True Impact of Twitter
Although Twitter can be used as an organizing tool, in the Iran election example, the evidence suggests Twitter has, instead, been a critical publicity tool. Twitter has become its own echo-chamber, with a ratio of posts-to-reposts as great as 1-to-20. This is five times as great as prior viral memes on Twitter, according to social network researcher Mike Edwards. Business Week reports: “There is this romantic notion that the people tweeting are the ones in the streets, but that is not what is happening,” Edwards said.

In addition, an American mediascape currently in the midst of a teenage-like crush on Twitter has generated its own echo-chamber. One result: liberal media around the world have publicized the protests, far beyond the scope of the protests and deaths that have been going on in Georgia for months. The result, today there are protests across the United States as well as other western democracies in Europe and Australia.

I’ve said for some time that breaking news is no longer the monopoly of professional journalism. Instead, in this era of “real time” publicly disseminated news, the professional media have a new role. That role includes verification as well as contextualization. It is a role that the media have, in general, ignored. There are a few cautionary articles, now that the protests are almost a week old, but they pale in comparison to “news” about protests.

Let me repeat myself: many people are protesting based on bad information. This is not to suggest that the situation in Iran is “good” or “just” or “right.” Or that Twitter is unimportant. Rather, we don’t really know what is going on there. Twitter has helped ignite moral outrage globally, facts (or lack thereof) be damned. Not unlike in Ender’s Game.

And, as Clay noted in his interview with TED, “as a medium gets faster, it gets more emotional.” We may be finally living McLuhan’s vision of “electronic interdependence“:

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.

We’ve seen this happen on Twitter, just two months ago when Amazon was accused of deliberately discriminating against gay and lesbian authors. Clay compared the fallout of that outrage to that surrounding the infamous Tawana Brawley “rape” of 1987:

Though the event initially triggered enormous moral outrage, evidence that it didn’t actually happen didn’t quell that outrage. Moral judgment is harder to reverse than other, less emotional forms; when an event precipitates the cleansing anger of righteousness, admitting you were mistaken feels dirty. As a result, there can be an enormous premium put on finding rationales for continuing to feel aggrieved, should the initial rationale disappear. Call it ‘conservation of outrage.’

Clay notes that he was “easily seduced” by the idea that Amazon had acted deliberately “because the actual, undisputed event — the change in status of LGBT-themed work on Amazon, while heterosexual material and anti-gay tracts kept their metadata intact — fit a template I know well, that of the factional use of a system open to public access.” As a result, the belief made him “stupid” (his characterization). Many people still believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that Amazon discriminated “on purpose” and have vowed never to buy another thing from the giant retailer.

Today’s moral outrage at events in Iran fits a template as well: a western anti-Muslim bias, a western “our liberal democracy is the only, right, true way to govern” bias, a western technological optimism bias. It’s ok to have a bias; what’s important is to realize and acknowledge how our biases color our view of the world. Just ask (the fictional) Ender Wiggins about the “Buggers” or the Bush Administration about Iraq.