Upon its creation, Twitter became a fascination for some and the butt of jokes for many. The social networking site allows users to “micro-blog,” describing their current mood or thoughts in 140 characters or less — a constraint that, in a swirl of other similar sites, made it seem like a waste of time. Politicians eager to catch onto the latest trend were mocked for “tweeting” during Congressional hearings, and sites such as “Tweeting Too Hard,” a site about narcissism in the Twitter-verse, cropped up quickly. So what brought a corps of dedicated Twitter users to the conclusion that they could take on America’s largest news broadcasting service, CNN, on charges of “focusing on trivialities” and “skirting issues”?
In short? Protesters in Iran… and the death of Michael Jackson. Earlier this summer, an election took place between the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a number of reformist candidates, including the favored Mir-Hossain Mousavi. As soon as it was announced that Ahmadinejad would be returning to office, Iranians — especially college students — took to the streets, in a fashion reminiscent of the protests just before the 1979 Revolution that created the tangled Shia Islamic “theo-democracy” that exists today. CNN, which, as a network, tends to take a domestic slant, covered the elections during its news cycle — until the death of Michael Jackson, in which the protests all but disappeared from the TV screen.
On Twitter, concerned citizens in Iran and the United States banded together to share new developments with the world. As the death toll rose, American news coverage decreased, leading new events to be shared with the tag “#CNNfail.” To be fair, restrictions against American journalists in Iran make it difficult for up-to-date news to be shared with the same speed and detail as in other nations. But why has Twitter become the vehicle for spreading news about these protests, and just how effective is it?
Actually, the use of Twitter itself to rail against controversial governments is not as new as most people think. Back in April, Twitter was used by dissidents in Moldova to protest a particularly harsh Communist rule. The most logical reason behind its popularity in both cases is that the protesters tend to be young, and Twitter has marketed itself as the new global “it.”Twitter’s SMS format also makes it easy to use via texting, and thus becomes an added pathway of communication, especially in a nation like Iran, where conventional SIM cards are blocked and standard messaging can be stopped or monitored at any time. This makes it possible for protesters to not only communicate with each other, but to broadcast to the rest of the world.
But even to those who felt that upheaval in Iran was all but neglected by news networks, journalistic integrity comes into question when dealing with user-submitted content online. Things posted on Twitter can’t be verified by an official news source, and it’s difficult to tell if news “from Tehran” is really coming out of Iran at all — those passionate about the cause from all over the globe set their locations to “Tehran” in solidarity as the protests turned ugly.
In all fairness, there’s the issue of journalistic integrity everywhere. My favorite example is the Post 9/11 Baby Boom — eight months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, news channels began broadcasting in earnest that OBGYNs were expecting a jump in birthrates and were preparing their delivery rooms as such. In most places, the birth rate gains were negligible or below average… but that didn’t deter CNN, MSNBC, and Fox from jumping on the story. Granted, protests against a hotly contested regime in Iran are a much more relevant issue than curiosity about Americans’, ahem, reproductive habits.
In fact, the US State Department deems updates from Twitterland so important that Twitter was requested to reschedule its regular maintenance so that the site would not be down during peak tweeting hours in Iran. Though controversial as a legitimate news source, it is one of the only ways that Americans of any stripe can get news from Tehran.
For many, Twitter is a “love it or leave it” service. But in these past few months, it has done one thing its founders never would have expected: made history.