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Foreign Policy: Twitter And Protests In Tehran

So back to cyber-protests in Tehran! One of the most discussed online initiatives of the last 24 hours has been a campaign to change users' Twitter location to Tehran. This has been done in order to confuse the authorities about the real users tweeting from Tehran and thus make it safer for them to continue operating. Nice in theory, but I am not sure it works in practice. The Iranian authorities already have lists of probably a hundred sensitive bloggers and Twitter users that could snatch easily; I don't think they would go after those who have just started doing this. I don't think it's the lack of knowledge that prevents them from doing this; it's a combination of political factors.

However, this confusion over locations would also make it next to impossible to elucidate Twitter's actual role in fueling and sustaining protests in Tehran. If I had a "Twitter revolution" thesis to protect here (and I don't – I only do Moldova), this is exactly would I be encouraging people to do: the more Twitters we have on the ground, the easier it is to argue that Twitter did play a role. In short, you can kiss good-bye to any scholarly research into the actual impact of Twitter on protests in Iran, simply because the number of Twitter users in the country would be severely inflated and impossible to arrive at.

Another downside here is the ability to aggregate the voices of those who are physically in Tehran. Can't locate the URLs now, but I remember seeing a few very interesting Web-sites that aggregated all posts tagged with #iranelection that listed Tehran as location. Now, those would probably be much more interesting to read than the armchair speculations of 99% of Twitter users. Now, I think we can kiss good-bye to such initiatives as well.

Now, wouldn't it be much better if those who were really concerned about their safety would simply change their location to, say, San Francisco? I think this would not introduce any of the noise we are seeing now. I wonder why the movement is in the other direction – i.e. inflating the number of those who are based in Tehran...If Iranians are really smart, they probably have databases with all relevant Twitter updates anyway, so they would be able to use, say, yesterday's data to figure out who really listed Tehran as location.

However, I am skeptical that addressing Twitter-discontent tops Iran's agenda at the moment. When you've got real riots in the street, Twitter-riots do not look that threatening. I do think that the Iranian authorities would become much more cautious and attentive to new media if Ahmadinejad's regime would survive, but I don't think they will get to their Twitter lists until mid-July or so.

Overall, I am skeptical about the claims that Twitter has been instrumental in organizing the protests. I grant that it may have been very influential in publicizing them. But I'd like to see tangible evidence that 10 random Iranians found each other via Twitter and – communicating in Farsi –actually planned a rally. I think we are still short of this – most of the reports I've seen about the use of Twitter have focused mostly on the role it played in publicizing the violence or the already planned protests and rallies.

I know that this different may seem subtle to some, but I think it's very important that we do not give Twitter et al more credit than it deserves. My FP colleague Dan Drezner has some useful thoughts here but most of the evidence I've seen so far is inconclusive about the role that Twitter played in facilitating coordination among Tehran-based protesters (even though it has certainly made it easier for them to liaise with the outside world).