NEAL CONAN, host:
As protests continue in Iran, both demonstrators and many Western reporters rely on Twitter, a social networking site where users can send very short messages to large lists of readers. The government has blocked cell phones and a lot of Web sites, but there are workarounds that make Twitter difficult to stop. There's also no way to check the accuracy of tweets, who's sending them and why. And some dispute exactly how influential Twitter is to begin with.
Do you think American journalists should rely on Twitter for information? And if you've been in contact with someone in Iran through Twitter, give us a call: 800-989-8255, email us: email@example.com. There's a conversation at our Web site too. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Noam Cohen joins us now from our bureau in New York. He writes about technology for the New York Times. His article, "Twitter on the Barricades: Six Lessons Learned," appeared in yesterday's editions of the paper. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. NOAM COHEN (Columnist, The New York Times): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And last week, the State Department asked Twitter to delay scheduled work on the site so that it wouldn't be down when demonstration coordinators wanted to use it. And that in itself, a lot of people say, shows how important Twitter has been.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. That was a funny development because also all it succeeded in doing was delaying it one day. And as it turns out, these protests are not something that are really that, you know, that are going to end in a day. So -but I think a lot of people saw it as a signal of how important outsiders view Twitter as a means of getting the word out and organizing the protests. I guess I would make a distinction, and the piece tried to make a distinction between the actual use of Twitter within Iran, which I think is very limited, and I know that - a colleague just told me that someone on the ground in Iran, you know, in Tehran asked people there, you know, did anyone find out about this march from Twitter? And out of 20, none had.
Mr. COHEN: And I think you would notice that if you look at Twitter tweets as they go by in a stream, an endless stream on the site - you can kind of watch them - there are very few of them are in Persian. So that would be another clue that, odds are, people who really are protesting aren't reading English guidance about how to meet up.
But that said, I think why the State Department and other people consider it so important is that it has an effect in getting the message out. And I was reading some account on a blog talking about how a lot of what protests are about, from the history of protests and the civil rights movement to any - go fill in the blank - are about letting people know what's going on. So I think that's why Twitter is really important, even if it isn't an organizing tool.
CONAN: And you draw the analogy to the printing presses of the American Revolution that published pamphlets like Thom Paine's "Common Sense." Didn't cause the revolution but didn't - sure didn't hurt it either.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I think the same kind of effect, you know, people call it the amplifying effect. On Twitter, it's not only you, it's then people who follow you. And then there's something called re-tweeting or, you know, repeating a little tweet that you like, and that's another form of amplifying. So, let's say a lot of the prominent, you know, Twitter feeds are accounts that people believe are really affiliated with the Mousavi movement, you know, have 30,000 followers, which is a lot.
Now, you know, I think Shaquille O'Neal has got more than a million. So put it in perspective. But that said, things that go there are then - are re-tweeted, and then that means, you know, it just - it's like the Prell ad, you know, tell two friends, two more friends, it amplifies, not to trivialize but…
CONAN: And one thing that's been important about Twitter is, unlike a lot of other older technologies, it is difficult to censor.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I think that's one of the real interesting things about Twitter is that it doesn't really live in what people sometimes call a walled garden like Facebook or MySpace, which is really - you enter that world and you have a great time and your friends are there, but you're in that world.
Twitter is almost kind of like a form of email that way, where you can send remotely, never accessing Twitter.com, and you can also read remotely. So, all of it is happening off of the Twitter.com site. That said, even shutting down a site is a very, you know, large step. And I think , you know, governments are trying to wrestle, how do you censor without being so heavy-handed that you make people really, you know, can't live their lives.
I mean, I think Burma - an expert was pointing out Burma actually just closed down the Internet, but obviously that's a very extreme step because you can't really have businesses or flights or, you know…
CONAN: A lot of - there's a lot of ancillary effects, and Burma is a much more isolated - Myanmar is a much more isolated place…
Mr. COHEN: Absolutely.
CONAN: …than Iran is.
Mr. COHEN: Absolutely. Yeah. So I think Iran is trying to wrestle with how -how to even censor anyway, then Twitter really becomes kind of very, very difficult. And I think the role that Twitter then plays - I do - there are people who are inside of Iran who are using it and they're sending it out, and then it gets amplified out. And then you've got to believe it comes back in in various ways. I mean, the story behind this video, the Neda video - which, again, has a lot of the same dangers we're talking about, where we don't really know who she is, what happened, why…
CONAN: For those who've not seen it - there may be one or two - this is a video of a woman who appears to be at a demonstration, appears to be struck in the head and appears to die right in front of us.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. And a colleague sort of did the hard work - which again, I would say journalists who use Twitter are using it as a starting point, not an ending point. And he did the hard work to find out, you know, who did upload this and how did it get uploaded.
And, you know, suffice to say, it got uploaded from someone - an Iranian expatriate in the Netherlands. So it's something where it leaks out, it gets processed and improved and tweaked outside of Iran, and then you've got to believe people inside Iran are seeing it. How exactly, I don't know. I'm not in Iran. But you know what I'm saying? It's a two-way street.
CONAN: So it is more a tool, you're suggesting, of propaganda rather than a tool of information and coordination?
Mr. COHEN: Well, you know, propaganda, I would say, you know, all - everything is a form of information. And I don't think it's really an organizing tool. I guess that was the distinction I was trying to stress in that I don't think credibly you can say that in Iran, people are credibly using Twitter to say here's where we're going to meet up and here's our strategy. That, I think, is really pushing the limits.
But, you know, one man's propaganda is another man's information, I guess.
CONAN: Sure. Yeah. But propaganda doesn't have to be a bad thing. If it's propaganda from your side, you agree with it.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. Very true. Very true.
CONAN: We're talking with Noam Cohen, who writes about technology for the New York Times. His article is called "Twitter on the Barricades." 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should journalists rely on information they get over Twitter? And if you're in contact with someone in Iran over Twitter, give us a call, tell us what's going on.
Let's hear first from Mike. Mike's calling us from Tallahassee.
Professor MIKE ABRAMS (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Mike. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Prof. ABRAMS: Hi. My name's Mike Abrams. I'm a journalism professor in Tallahassee, Florida. I've been teaching journalism for almost 30 years. I got onto Twitter four, five days ago and got on to the Iran election channel. And I've never been so immersed in so many frontline things. It was absolutely fascinating to me.
I'm not sure how much of the information was accurate, but I had this sense of actually being out there with these people who are putting their lives on the line. And the immediacy to me, as a former newspaper reporter, was absolutely astounding.
And as have been said, we don't know how accurate, but I think that if you look at the majority of the kinds of things that you're getting over Twitter, sooner or later, the picture falls into place. And I certainly would have my students learn how to do it, or at least gain an appreciation for what comes in over Twitter.
CONAN: Did you wonder, as Noam Cohen mentioned just a moment ago, why so many of those messages are in English?
Prof. ABRAMS: Well, I did. And I did see some Arabic messages, too. I think that many of the Iranians are multilingual. One of the nice things about Twitter is also that it's not just the Twitter but the links to the blogs and the links to the videos and the links to other Web sites where you can get a better accounting of what's going on.
For instance, links to the BBC Web sites, links to YouTube, links to other sources of news. And this is what makes, in my mind, Twitter so powerful - not only the people, but the links that you have there.
CONAN: And I'm sure you meant to say in Persian, rather than Arabic. And…
Prof. ABRAMS: Yeah. I'm sorry.
CONAN: That's okay. So you're going to teach your students now to learn how to do this and learn how to follow it and use it as a tool?
Prof. ABRAMS: Well, I'll be teaching media law, but I'll - I'm sure that we'll have students - other teachers will be using this as a lesson. We are very much into social media in the journalism schools and we feel that our students need to learn this. You know, the demise of the American newspaper seems to have set us all on a track to - towards social media. And you have to know this. You have to know these - have to have these skills to get jobs now in the journalism market.
CONAN: But Mike, it feels like, to you, that you are getting primary sources here.
Prof. ABRAMS: I hope I am.
Prof. ABRAMS: I hope I am. My judgment, as a journalist - I know that people can fake it, but by and large, I have a sense of something horrific going on over there and I have a sense of being in the midst of - right in medias res, as I used to say in Latin class. I was exhilarated. I spent hours. I spent -just glued to that screen for hours. I've never really felt anything like this. And I've emailed colleagues about this experience.
CONAN: And Noam Cohen, that accumulation of information - admittedly all in generally banal 140-character messages - that accumulation of information gathers weight as you read more and more and more of it.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. I think Mike is definitely onto a lot. I think it's interesting that Mike calls it the channel. You know, he said the Iranian election channel, which really, all it is is a self-organized group of people who say whenever I'm going to write about the Iranian election, I'm going to put a little tag on my post so everyone can find it that way.
Often, people decide on the spur of the moment what they'll call it. And sometimes, their tags are also like Mousavi, you know, with a hash mark. And the idea that he calls him a channel, really hits - the idea that Twitter, in some ways, is like broadcasting. It's somehow the ability to reach this mass audience. And it really is democratizing broadcasting, obviously, when any one person can theoretically have, you know, hundreds of thousands of followers in an audience.
And so he really hit on that fact. And the accumulation - it is sort of the sum is greater than its parts, right? I mean, the whole is greater than some of its parts. It has a - you can kind of put together a picture - I think there are ways of sort of, you know, judging credibility by looking at - if you look at an account that was existing long before the protests that was tied to the election and appear to be sort of speaking for the Mousavi campaign - and that's months ago, before anyone knew there'd be a protest, maybe no one thought he would even have a chance of winning - you can kind of believe, okay, you know, we've had a record of this, and I don't think that - I know they didn't just create this account now to suddenly pretend that they're a part of this campaign and sort of propagandize. So I think there are ways you can try to, you know, figure out who's credible and who isn't.
And, you know, kind of there are of rules of the road to sort of help you out. But there is a bit of a sense of just raw information coming through, and sometimes that useful. I'm think of - we wrote a, me and a colleague, wrote a piece about the - the Mumbai attacks. And that was a case of something - it was a very spread-out event. It was hard for any reporter to cover it.
And you could gather - could tell people that were in Mumbai. They could tell what they've seen. And it was a way of kind of getting a sense of the scope of this attack that involved like six or seven buildings. And so I think it has a real foot on - you know, people-on-the-ground kind of feel to it. It's definitely true. And he's not the only who's addicted to sort of just watching it, you know, stream by like a river of information.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
Prof. ABRAMS: Okay. My pleasure.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Noam Cohen of the New York Times, who writes just about technology for the newspaper, about "Twitter on the Barricades," his piece that appeared yesterday.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Rodney, Rodney with us from Bucyrus - is that right - in Ohio?
RODNEY (Caller): Yes, that is.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
RODNEY: Yeah, just listening to the program, and I guess the first comment I would have as far as drawing information off of a Twitter for, you know, journalism purposes - of course you have to be very careful because as you have mentioned, you know, the ability to verify the sources, verify the validity of the information.
One thing that I did latch onto - I'm a nurse in Ohio. And there's one particular tweet that was basic first aid information that was actually printed in Farsi. Having grabbed a hold of that particular tweet, I have taken upon myself to re-tweet it as often as I can. And I think, just a moment ago, you mentioned about, you know, raw information, practical information that can be used. And, you know, my hope is that even if a single Iranian manages to get a hold of that information, it might actually save a life.
Mr. COHEN: It's a beautiful thing. And I - I don't know. Are you fluent in Farsi, or in Persian? Or…
RODNEY: No. I just - actually, I was fortunate enough that the original tweet that came out was in both English and Farsi. So I've just been perpetuating that particular tweet.
Mr. COHEN: Because I was going to say, another interesting that's happened -not exactly Twitter-related - is that Google sped up its translation, you know, automatic translation program for Persian. So, I mean, you can see how it's all kind of coming together for good or bad that there are, suddenly, are tools that make it easier for us to understand Persian - maybe the right first aid information from outside of Iran in Persian. It's all very - it's all changing so quickly. It's amazing to watch.
CONAN: Rodney, thanks very much.
RODNEY: It is.
RODNEY: Thank you.
CONAN: Email from Will in Ann Arbor, who corrected me when I corrected an earlier caller, saying that I'm - she's sure I meant Farsi and not Persian. But, anyway, moving right along - there has been some evidence that, well, not all the information is accurate, and people can get excited about what they see. But also, some suggestions that there's been deliberate disinformation from time to time on Twitter.
Mr. COHEN: Yeah. It's common to look on the site, and especially look at some of the credible sites of them - you know, accounts that I've mentioned, and see them warning you about newly created sites. There's definitely been, I don't know, disinformation - you wonder whether it's accidental or on purpose, but -hugely inflated crowd figures, other sort of - you know, one case was an ABC reporter who is a big Tweeter who had people, in essence, fake this re-tweeting idea I was mentioning, that you basically say, I'm quoting somebody.
Someone just did the same sort of format and just made up the quote they were repeating. So it's another form. It looked really credible because it's like, oh, I know re-tweeting. I know that idea.
And suddenly he realized, you know, he had to come out and say I never said these things. It turned out the things they were pretending to be said were very pro-Iranian government. So, obviously, it was important for ABC News to clear that up. And they took the, you know, in a kind of a extraordinary step of, like, enact - issuing a statement on that, to that effect.
So there's a lot of chaos. I was kind of comparing it to, like, Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, where there are, you know, there are agent, you know, provocateurs and saboteurs and it's hard to know who's, you know, who's side is, you know, everyone is on.
CONAN: Let's see if we could squeeze one last call in. This Mazida(ph) in Dearborn, Michigan. I hope I'm saying that correctly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MAZIDA (Caller): It's Mazida. Close enough.
CONAN: Go ahead, please. We just have about a minute left.
MAZIDA: Okay. I just wanted to say that under these circumstances, I feel like it is okay to take Twitter seriously because we really don't have many choices. It's kind of like - we should still be cautious, but it's better than nothing. It's all we have. Just like with 9/11, the iReports, everything that was going on, it was a moment of chaos. I feel like this is the same situation with what's going on in Iran.
CONAN: And she's right about paucity of other sources, Noam Cohen.
Mr. COHEN: That's a great point. I mean, obviously, if we had free access and truly, you know, journalists, you know, all over the place, it would be a lot less important. I mean, it's totally, it's a basic point that makes it all makes sense. Yeah.
CONAN: And are you glued to that Twitter all day, reading these tweets?
MAZIDA: I am. I - Twitter and Facebook, as well. I'm actually - I posted Neda's video on my Facebook page. I'm following some of the people on Twitter. I'm definitely following, NPR, CNN, all the news organizations. And I'm just amazed at the way that it's being used. It's truly - it's amazing.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MAZIDA: Okay. Great.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Noam Cohen, thank you for your time today.
Mr. COHEN: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Noam Cohen, with us from our bureau in New York. He writes about technology for the New York Times, his article "Twitter on the Barricades" in yesterday's paper. You can find a link at npr.org/talk.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about coping with long-term unemployment. Be with us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.