NPR logo Twitter, Social Media Role In Iran Is Hyped: Expert

Twitter, Social Media Role In Iran Is Hyped: Expert

Ethan Zuckerman, a Harvard University expert on the use of technology in the developing world, says don't believe the hype about how much social media is driving events in Iran. They're not, he told Robert Siegel, co-host of All Things Considered.

Robert asked Zuckerman what the real story was which led to this response:

Zuckerman: I think the real story is that we have a protest movement where hundreds of thousands of people have very bravely taken to the streets. I think it's an incredibly compelling and incredibly important story. I think it's really interesting that Americans, Europeans, Canadians are following along via social media. And I think it's fascinating that social media is letting people have a great deal of solidarity with the protesters.

Robert: But are the protesters communicating with one another through those social media?

Zuckerman: Not primarily from what we can tell. We've been talking to people in Iran. We've been talking to people in the Iranian blogging community. We think the protests are much more organized by traditional media, by people calling each other on mobile phones or sending text messages back and forth.

Social media is mostly giving us who are outside of Iran a picture of what's going on the ground but i don't believe it's the main organizing medium on the ground.

Robert: Now how do we know this? How well can one research the degree to which folks are using Facebook or Twitter or whatever it might be?

Zuckerman: Well, we can make some guesses at it based on how easy or how difficult it is to use those social media tools within Iran at the moment. Those tools are blocked. You need to go through a proxy server.

From what we can tell, Iran has also been systematically degrading it's connection to the rest of the world. And there's somewhere between a fifth and a tenth as much bandwidth as there was during normal circumstances.

It's probably quite, quite difficult for people within Iran to be using these tools on a regular basis. for back and forth communication. What we've been hearing from people we're talking to in Iran is that a couple of different things are going on.

Yes, some people are definitely tweeting from the streets to report on what's going on. Other people are calling families and friends from the states and giving them reports. And then family and friends are posting from unfiltered Internet in the U.S.

But a lot of this organizational activity is much more traditional. It's tools that we've seen used for street protests since the Philippines.

Andy Carvin, NPR's senior strategist for social media, wrote on this same issue today in an article that tracks well with Zuckerman.

Here's an excerpt:

The Web analytics company Sysomos estimates that only 8,600 user profiles indicate they're from Iran, and it's likely that only a subset of them are currently active on Twitter and involved in protests. More likely, text messaging, phones and face-to-face interactions are playing a much larger role in their activities.

Why is Twitter getting all the attention? For one thing, Twitter has become the social media darling of journalists. Between its utility as an information-gathering tool and the exuberance resulting from celebrities embracing Twitter, it's become a pop culture phenomenon that is hard for them to ignore.

Now combine that journalistic enthusiasm toward Twitter with the Iran protest story, and it's hard to resist covering it as something momentous. But how do you reconcile this pronouncement with the fact that only a small number of protesters are actively using Twitter?

You can listen to Robert's complete All Things Considered interview with Zuckerman after 7 pm ET when the audio becomes available.