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.

  

13 Comments

  1. Kathy,

    Wow. Great article.

  2. Does anyone else feel that it is odd that Mousavi lost in his own home town by 20 points?

    Or how about the results in the major cities that are predominantly very young and liberal?

    As SH said, the results are a joke. Any reasonable person can see that there was fraud. Maybe Ahmadinejad won by a couple of points, it is possible. But he certainly did not win by the margin reported.

    Lets leave twitter and facebook out of the equation and just look at the reported numbers.

  3. Ahmadinejad was the governor of the province that Mousavi came from and had time to cultivate his support there. Gore lost in his home state too. Nor is there any particular identification between Mousavi and his home town. Major cities may have large populations of liberal/wealthy, but they're by no means predominant. “Any reasonable person” would not simply believe things he was told.

  4. Thanks for the feedback.

    It's not a popular point of view, but I think we need to wait to see what happens with the investigation before we wring any more hands … especially since our hand-wringing will do nothing but drive up our own blood pressure! Moreover, it's not like Iran was on the “good” side of the US foreign policy ledger.

    I really wish all this passion (protests, Twitter activity, Facebook activity) were focused on DOMESTIC problems: health care, the debt (not the deficit), education, media literacy, scientific literacy, why incumbents almost always get re-elected *here*, etc.

  5. Major Media is not reporting because the Government has closed their access off. No foreign media is allowed to report out of Iran at this moment. That is why the Twitter feeds are import. They are the only pipeline out.

    Yes is is hard to follow previous standards of journalist rigor via twitter, but if the government were allowing free and open reporting this wouldn't all BE on twitter. And if the government had nothing to hide why would they be silencing the media?

  6. What do we really know about Iran's election. Very little, maybe nothing. Tweets won't tell us. Only time will. Remember 1970 Chile, overthrow of Salvadore Ayende, CIA involvement, our president Richard Nixon “do whatever necessary to get rid of him.”

  7. Hi, Dyionisiac — US media don't have a lot of feet on the ground in the middle east. Period. They've closed foreign offices because of costs.

    I disagree with your suggestion that Twitter would not be used if there were more mainstream coverage of Iran. And I disagree with the implication that an unvetted pipeline is somehow better for us — the outsiders — than one where there is some veracity, verifiability.

  8. Thanks, Fairlee. Lots of folks don't want to wait for time to help flesh out the picture. :-)

  9. Great post.

    As a frequent visitor to the region (I am a Japanese), I am astonished by the perception/information gap people in the U.S. are suffering.

    It seems that people tend to reject the idea outright that is not familiar to them… or make up their own version of reality to match their beliefs (Mousavi the democratic reformer versus Ahmadinejad the Darth Vader ?) particularly when they are not sufficiently informed…

  10. @kathy

    I'm not saying an unvetted pipe is better than a vetted one, certainly. I'm saying it's better than nothing at all. I'm not saying twitter wouldn't be used if there was more mainstream coverage, I'm saying it wouldn't be very important if there were mainstream coverage.

    That is why I try to run everything I retweet though filters. mostly only video and blogs actually from Iran, or stories by those sources that are verifiable, like what little the BBC can get out, or the Al Gizeira article on the topic and English translations of Mousavi's speeches so people will know what the elements really were.

    I do State again that if the government had nothing to hide they would not have shut down communications. enough Has come out thought verified sources to show that this was a selection, not an election.

  11. The U.S. media took side with the opposition before the election; Richard Engel of NBC mentioned green revolution several times and compared it to the Orange revolution. I do not believe Mousavi won nor came close in the election. I think he is being used to oppose Ahmadinejad. All I have seen are biased reporting; I have not seen Ahmadinejad supporters being interview on TV, only on NPR on Friday.

    I find it ridiculous that a “Journalist” quote information posted on tweeter as credible information. I find this an injustice to Americans, the government's propaganda should stay overseas. This is the same line that Bush took to get us into Iraq.

  12. What about satellites ('member those?). If I can count the tiles on my roof via satellite I think we could determine the size of 'massive' demos in Tehran…but no: we get grainy, tight mobile phone video and they ask us to take their word for it as to what's going on. As to banning foreign media, that is wrong UNLESS those same media are flat-out organising an anti-democratic putsch to replace the government chosen by the people.
    Then we have Neda, the grand martyr (god rest her soul), a passerby shot by whom? No-one knows. Now she has been catapulted to martyrdom and, yes, 'iconic' status. This is a put up job: a flag for a flagging rebellion to rally around. Funny how she's a beautiful young woman but then, human prejudice being what it is, they wouldn't milk half the sympathy trying to martyrize some ugly, hired, male thug who had been lobbing cobblestones at the cops who are trying to defend democracy from mob rule and the machinations of foreign agents provocateur….
    In all, this is simply the biggest put-up, media manipulaton whitewash of modern times and, surprise surprise, whoever else it benefits, it's a gift for the Israelis….how bizarre

    TOES

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