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The Revolution Will NOT Be Twittered

BY Tom Watson | Monday, June 15 2009

"Mock not," pleaded blogger Andrew Sullivan as he posted an instaclassic of hyperbole, "The Revolution Will Be Twittered" in praise of Iranian supporters of Mir Hussein Moussavi who took the streets and - in some cases - used the short-form blogging services to post about the scene in Tehran.

Mock on, says I.

There is something like digital catnip on the breakfast bar for western politicogeeks in the story of Iran's disputed election and the ensuing power struggle roiling the Middle East's largest theocracy. Anything that suggests that some of the tools and tricks adopted among the wired, iPhone-wielding politically active classes in the United States may be used to - dramatic pause - start a revolution in one of the world's most dangerous countries carries the potency of a synthetic narcotic injected into the great XML vein of the Internet...

Clearly, Andrew Sullivan mainlined some o' that Twitter smack:

That a new information technology could be improvised for this purpose
so swiftly is a sign of the times. It reveals in Iran what the Obama
campaign revealed in the United States. You cannot stop people any
longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your
established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize
as never before.

We need to calm down. Twitter is a fascinating startup that has spawned a passionate core community of users, many of them activists for social causes, politicians or technology sector types. Together with a host of other digital tools and platforms, Twitter can be an awesome, viral information-spreader of a tool, and it can raise support for causes and empower activism. Indeed, I'm a big believer in the growth and power of online social activism in general - and my 2008 book CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley) is in its third printing.

But I think there are limits, especially when men and women are marching in streets patrolled by the troops of an absolutist religious dictatorship, facing soldiers' guns in public and the noose behind the prison wall. Sure, Twitter (and Facebook and text messaging and blog and YouTube) can be effective information outlets for revolutionaries, but it's utterly facile to suggest that information technology is driving the currents of unrest in Iran. I can understand the impulse, though; after all, we (the digerati, the plugged in, the Twitterverse) are watching it unfold online. And, you know, wherever we are, well, that's where the action is.

But I prefer the more finely-modulated - but no less fascinated - view of TechPresident blogger Nancy Scola to the current outbreak of triumphalism:

We've seen street protests in Tehran, violence there, and a veritable tsunami of information online detailing the facts, figures, and passions surrounding an election that taps into the very heart of how Iranians view the future of their republic. As we saw in Moldova, the idea of a "Twitter Revolution" isn't always borne out by the facts, at least to the extent that the uprising would have not taken place without the tool. At this historic moment in time, it's fascinating to
watch -- and participate in -- how a political conflict can evolve online, how those outside the immediate sphere of its influence have a role in the chain of events, and all that interest and passion can feed back into the cycle of how events play out.

Then too, we're all too quick to align the Iranian "reformers" with a westernized liberal ideal of free elections, free speech, and tolerance. Like in the "Twitter revolution" in Moldova, it becomes cartoonishly easy to choose sides based on Tweets. Further, Iran is an old and complex society that simply doesn't fit our Democrat vs. Republican mindset. It's easy to forget, I guess, that Moussavi isn't exactly an American constitutional scholar like Barack Obama. This is a man who shut down the university system in Iran on the orders of Khomeini, and a former prime minister who managed his country's disastrous war with Iraq and has refused to answer questions about his role in the 1988 massacres of political prisoners.

Sure we instinctively want regime change and a liberalized, more open Iran. And Americans naturally side with the pro-business reformers Moussavi and Rafsanjani, who want to open up the country's markets to outside investments. Iran is also a country governed by a religious council, where several factions are fighting for control of the theocratic system that emerged from the original revolution. And while women's rights and the desire of young people to live in a more progressive society are undoubtedly driving the ongoing struggle, we can't forget that reformist challengers were Khomeini revolutionaries. Yet we insist on viewing the Iranian street through the lens of last year's presidential election - like it's a bunch of college kids taking time off to walk the precincts in the Iowa caucuses. And if the election was indeed stolen (as seems likely) can't we just organize our way to a better result?

Somehow, a key factor for folks like Andrew Sullivan seems to be "how does this square with my image of Obama, and what we accomplished last year together, and therefore my own self-image?" How else to explain this:

The key force behind this is the next generation, the Millennials, who
elected Obama in America and may oust Ahmadinejad in Iran. They want
freedom; they are sick of lies; they enjoy life and know hope.

So simple, isn't it? Fits in 140 characters. Yet it's too simple by far. As turmoil and violence continue in Iran, it's just too damned easy to be intoxicated by the Twitter stream. It trivializes taking to the streets against your country's ruling regime. As one Tweet put it so eloquently this afternoon:

"Seriously, everyone should check out #iranelection throughout the day. Big question is, what can we do?"

So far, just hit the refresh button.

[Cross-posted from My Dirty Life & Times]