Twitter's Impact On Iran Protests Examined

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A common observation in the protests in Iran is that demonstrators are using Twitter and other social media to communicate in the face of government censorship of traditional media. Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says though some protesters used Twitter, most of the organizing happened the old-fashioned way.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Is there a Twitter revolution underway in Iran? It's become a common observation: Protesters are using social media to communicate in the face of government censorship of traditional media. Some people would say it is the second Twitter revolution. Similar claims were made about the protests earlier this year in the East European nation of Moldova.

Well, Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard says that the tweeting in the streets of Tehran, and back in April in the streets of the Moldovan capital Chisinau, have this much in common: They have both been exaggerated. Ethan Zuckerman, welcome to the program.

Professor ETHAN ZUCKERMAN (Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And if the media are overdoing the Twitter story in Iran, what do you think is the real story?

Prof. 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. And I think it's fascinating that social media is letting people feel a great deal of solidarity with the protesters.

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

Prof. ZUCKERMAN: Not primarily. 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 those who are outside of Iran a picture of what's going on on the ground, but I don't believe it's the main organizing medium on the ground.

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

Prof. ZUCKERMAN: Well, we can make some guesses at it, based on how easy or how difficult it is to use those media tools within Iran at the moment. Those tools are blocked. 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 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 family or friends in the States and giving them reports, and then they're family or friends are posting from unfiltered Internet in the U.S.

SIEGEL: Well, take us back to April now in Moldova, where there were protests in the former Soviet Republic. What role did Twitter play there?

Prof. ZUCKERMAN: Well, I think, in a lot of ways, the role that Twitter played in Chisinau is pretty similar to what we're seeing in Iran. People on Twitter suddenly noticed people using an unusual tag. You can add a little string of characters into your tweets to make it easier to follow. And the tag that people were using was hash, the number sign, and then PEMAN(ph), which was an abbreviation for the main square in Chisinau.

And so when people started seeing a lot of these PEMAN tags, people started finding out more about the protest, writing about it, blogging about it, calling attention to it. And very quickly we had people showing up and declaring it a Twitter protest. And we went through it and we discovered that over the course of those protests, only about 1,000 people used the tag. As we looked more closely, we also discovered that of those thousand people, only a small minority of them were actually in Moldova.

SIEGEL: You have to explain something to me, as a non-tweeter here, you have remarked on the degree of re-tweeting. What does that tell you and what is it?

Prof. ZUCKERMAN: On Twitter, if you want to quote someone else, you say, RT, re-tweet, that person's name, and then what they said before. And it's a way of essentially saying, I'm not saying this, but my friend said this and I thought this was interesting.

Re-tweeting is a pretty common practice on Twitter, but on an average day, we see maybe one out of 20 posts is a re-tweet. Looking at posts that have the Iran elections tag, about one out of three was a re-tweet. People are using that tag, this discussion about Iran elections, to amplify the few reports we're getting from the ground. What it seems to be is that we're getting a few eyewitness reports and then there are many, many people who are then repeating those things by re-tweeting them.

SIEGEL: Ethan Zuckerman, thank you.

Prof. ZUCKERMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Ethan Zuckerman is a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He is also a co-founder of the blog Globalvoicesonline.org.

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