Iran, Twitter and the new media world
Note: The ABC’s Mark Colvin from the PM program gave this speech yesterday at the Media140 conference in Sydney.
Since I’ve been asked to speak about Iran – and I will speak more about it shortly – I want to begin by acknowledging that in the last 24 hours, people – many of them young people – have been shot at, beaten and arrested in Tehran and other Iranian cities.
It’s the thirtieth anniversary of the sacking of the US Embassy in Tehran - a key part of the Iranian Revolution – which turned into the Islamic Revolution – and demonstrators have been out on the street, turning the Republic’s own slogans against it, shouting ‘Marg bar Diktator’, Death to the Dictator, instead of ‘Marg bar Amrika’, Death to America.
The reaction has been swift and violent. It’s a reminder that whatever power Twitter may have it is as nothing against determined men with guns and batons. I’m reminded of Peter Cook’s evaluation of the power of satire. It “did so much”, he said, “to prevent the rise of Hitler in pre-war Germany”.
Now if I had to give this talk a title, it would be: ‘I’m no expert’. I’m no expert on Iran. I reported from there, for a very intense period in my life, but that was thirty years ago.
I have read quite a lot about Iran. I talk to people about Iran, and particularly about how the rest of the world sees Iran, as often as I can. But I would never set myself up as an expert.
I’m no expert on Twitter: I only started tweeting at the beginning of the year, and only started doing it seriously when an accident put me in hospital for a couple of weeks.
I’m not really much of an expert on anything: my degree was in the history of English—Language and Literature—and for some reason I seldom get to use my extensive knowledge of Chaucer or Jane Austen, the excesses of the prescriptive grammarians, or the beginning of the Great Vowel Shift in the 15th century, on ABC Radio or television. I blame news management – but in truth, I don’t think even Radio National would be that interested. And expertise is supposed to be what we need nowadays.
I don’t have a niche: I’m a dilettante—what Shakespeare called “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles”. I have admittedly been picking up such trifles for so long and in such quantity that I know a little bit about a very large number of things.
But I remain at heart a generalist – and thus, supposedly a member of the most endangered species in the new world of journalism.
“The role of the generalist is diminishing” the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell tells Time Magazine. ‘If I were studying today’, he says, ‘I’d go get a Master’s in statistics ,and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective’. That counts me out.
Gladwell himself is a specialist – in sociology, marketing, anthropology and behavioural science – and his clever synthesis of those subjects into readable stories with a modern message has sold millions of books and moved hundreds of thousands of magazines off the newsstands. He’s found a niche. Niches are supposed to be everything.
So what am I doing here? Is there still a role for the generalist, and for the so-called old media like the ABC?
The first thing that we at the ABC have had to accept is that the old certainties in media are gone. Blogs – and microblogs like twitter – are the new police force of journalism. I’ve been asked to talk about Iran – on twitter, it was called hashtag iran, or hashtag iranelection, or other variants. But it would be just as relevant to talk about another hashtag –CNNFAIL.
That was how Iran’s so-called twitter revolution started – with anger, particularly in America, at the conventional media, especially CNN – for failing to cover the results of the Iranian election properly. For what seemed like a whole weekend, CNN failed to cover the story as anything much beyond Ahmadinejad being re-elected.
There were about five hundred western journalists in Iran at the time. Many of them were trying honestly and decently to do their job. I know our own reporter Ben Knight pumped out as much information as he could, though it became daily more difficult.
The BBC’s John Simpson, bringing the perspective of thirty years in Iran, plunged into crowds to interview and report, despite knowing that foreign journalists – and eventually anyone with a camera – was a target for the Basiji thugs or the Revolutionary Guards. The BBC’s resident correspondent John Leyne was expelled from the country. John Lyons of the Australian remained as long as he could, filing copy until he too was expelled.
But CNNFAIL was the hashtag that stuck, because of that network’s comprehensive failure over the course of a weekend, and it became for social media a symbol of what was wrong with the old guard. It was then that people also really started telling the story through Twitter.
I was one of them, in my small corner of the twitterverse, and I’d still argue, though, that journalism –old-style journalism – played its part. There was what the intelligence people call a lot of static or chatter – a vast amount of miscellaneous material coming out of Iran on Twitter, with no way of verifying it absolutely.
But if you had a sharp eye for detail, you could pick up indications of whether someone was reliable or not. If it referred to protest action in a particular square, were other people saying the same thing?
Quite often I would find three twitter sources, all apparently in different parts of the crowd, reporting on the same event, though from a different perspective. Time came into the judgment as well. Was this someone whose tweets yesterday and the day before had been proved to be true by other reports later?
One twitter user, Change_for_Iran, reported in a series of messages being under siege in a dormitory. Another Twitterer, from another part of the campus, reported seeing seeing the same thing from another angle. A day later, pictures started coming through of the damage done in the attack. I
t starts to add up to something like credibility. I picked up quite a lot of followers at that time, and some of them actually told me that this job – of sorting the wheat from the chaff – had proved useful, to them at least. So maybe I do have a specialism after all. It’s just that that specialism is one called journalism – which takes in a whole range of things, not only that skill of sorting, but also of synthesising complex and difficult subjects into something simpler and easier to digest.
Anyway that job – of filtering and aggregating – seemed to me a useful adjunct to broadcasting on the radio. Then I wrote a couple of columns – or blogposts if you prefer – about Iran, and people seemed to think that that added to the mix. In fact, over time, I’ve come to think that there’s a complicated relationship in which the blog reinforces our website, which leads some people to me on twitter, which sometimes takes people back to PM: and the radio programme, while still the centre of my day, gradually becomes only one of the platforms on which I like to work.
Now as I’ve already indicated, Twitter didn’t really achieve much at all inside Iran. I’ll quote from an article at the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma – “Was there a Twitter revolution in Iran? To Iason Athanasiadis, an independent journalist whose detention there sparked a global uproar that culminated in his release, the answer comes quickly: No”. It’s a qualified no, though.
On the negative side, he says that in the absence of other sources, there was an amplified mix of noise and facts. Seeing their messages multiplied by other Iranians and non-Iranians alike, protesters were led to think: “Clearly we’re in the majority, and clearly the elections have been thrown ... and so clearly we should go out into the streets.”
But he argues strongly against relying on twitter to write stories – especially if you don’t “triangulate” in exactly the manner I’ve already described. And I agree. Social media should never become an excuse for not spending the money and sending the correspondents to report on the ground. And, says Iason, “social media also helped spread false images, inflated protest tallies, and rumors”.
Let’s not forget, also, that the Twitter Revolution was in conventional terms a massive defeat. After about two weeks, the most active and reliable twitterers disappeared, amid fears about what had happened to them. The many non-Iranian Twitter users who changed their Twitter location status to Tehran suddenly made it even more difficult to work out who was reliable and who was not. And there was good reason to believe that the Iranian security services, by starting fake twitter accounts, spread disinformation and black propaganda—making it even harder still. I have described the twitter revolution in Iran as a defeat: but a defeat which contains the seeds of two victories.
The first victory is that for millions of people around the world, Iranians were not faceless Middle Easterners, about whom a Republican candidate described as a moderate could joke, ‘Bomb,bomb,bomb, bomb Iran’, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Barbra Ann. You cannot bomb a regime without bombing its people – and the people of Iran, as we now see, are mostly young, predominantly highly literate, as hooked on the worldwide web as we are, and in many cases keen on changing their own political system.
The second victory is that they saw themselves as we saw them, and they saw us cheering them on. They saw ordinary people in countries like America – which the ayatollahs call The Great Satan – and Britain – The Little Satan – coming out in support of their hopes and fears. For once that couldn’t be censored by State media. Iran has been governed for much of the last thirty years by a fragile compact. The ayatollahs allowed people a sort of limited, narrow, distorted choice, and when elections came around people held their noses and chose the lesser of two clergy-sanctioned evils.
Then in June they rigged the election results – or if they didn’t rig them they did a damn good impression of it – and broke the compact. They now rule only by force, not by even a grumbling agreement from the public.
The pretence has been stripped away, and part of what did that was created by Twitter, social media, and the world wide web.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
@Kittu64 That's true. Pretty sure I referred to "high salaried" women.
@michelangeloruc not at all mate it is a great story and photo
@nswpolice very polite and helpful officers manning the Pyrmont road closures this morning
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