By Frank James

Many media organizations, present company included, have turned to social networking sites, including Twitter in the search for first-hand information on what's happening in Iran, especially since Iranian authorities have greatly restricted what foreign journalists there can report on and have stopped renewing journalists' visas.

But who can tell what's reliable and what isn't on Twitter? It's impossible to know even if what you're reading was actually written by people in Tehran or elsewhere in Iran, especially since there's a movement for as many people in the Twittersphere to use the Iranian capital as their location a là "I'm Spartacus" to make it harder for Iranian censors to stop tweets that are actually from Iran.

The unintended consequence of that move was to make it even harder for the non-Iranian censors to figure out what's really from Iran and what isn't. For instance, how do we know that Gabhan is really in Tehran and not, say, spoofing from Johannesburg?

And even if he's in Iran, how do we know his information is credible? It's even possible that some of the tweets are coming from Iranian authorities or foreign intelligence agencies issuing disinformation.

One function of mainstream media journalism is to disseminate information we've determined to be reliable. It's not easy to do and we journalists make mistakes in vetting "facts," witness much of the important reportage leading to the Iraq War. We're human.

But the reliance on Twitter and Facebook is essentially throwing the doors open to everything and anything.

All of which makes Jon Stewart's satirical riff last night on CNN's use of social-networking sites not only very funny but trenchant too.

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This isn't meant to denigrate the social-networking sites. Clearly, they are making it impossible for Iranian authorities to accomplish their goal of keeping the world ignorant of what's happening there.

But much of the information coming across those sites requires some heavy caveat emptor. We have to assume a lot of the information we're seeing on Twitter is true. We just don't know which part of the Twitter flow is and which isn't.


12:35 - June 17, 2009