This post is pretty late, but here is one of the interviews I had on Al Jazeera English discussing the role of social media in Iran.
One of the key points I bring up in my interview is the importance of placing the information in context. Towards the end of the mass protests, the number of twitter accounts that we were monitoring dropped from 60 to around 6 (accounts we able to verify). Whilst the information coming out was amazing to show the government clamp down on protests, it is an incredible stretch to say that the information was a reflection of sentiment for the entire population of Iran (over 65million people).
There are two important events that we need to look at.
1) The actual outcome of the election. Did Ahmadinejad win? Do the majority of Iranians feel the election results were incorrect? Its important to note that the protestors are not anti regime, they want reform, but reform within the current system.
2) The protests and the government clamp down on protestors. This is a focus on Mausavi supporters, who felt the results were incorrect. This what is generating the bulk of the discussions online.
Whilst these two events are related, the information that was coming out online is specific to the second event. Once the government started clamping down on the protestors, social media played a critical role in getting the information out.
It is important to understand who are the ones that are sending out the information, what are their backgrounds, where do they come from etc. Harvard provides an excellent analysis on the Persian Blogosphere – the reformists do have a much larger share of the online voice than the conservative voices. There is also a very big percentage of Iranians living outside of Iran who are online, blogging about situation. Ahmadinejad supporters are from the poorer, less connected section of Iran. As such a big percentage of them do not have any access to the internet at all. Their voices are not heard over social media, as such we are only getting one side of the story.
Where social media wins, is the ability to report on the what and when. As events unfold, the immediacy of new technologies allows people on the ground the opportunity to get their voices out. In the case of Iran, it was used very effectively to show the government clamp down on protestors.
Where social media fails, is its inability to provide context and answer the why behind each event. It also does not provide a true representation of the entire population, as the majority of the voices online reflect a minority of the population. The majority of the online population in Iran come from a wealthy, educated background and from the big cities such as Tehran (Mausavi supporters). This is contrasted with the poorer, not connected Ahmadinejad supporters, who are based in the smaller towns and rural areas. When we are dealing with developing countries, we often forget that the majority of the population have no access to simple communication tools, let alone social sites.
A colleague of mine, Mohamed Nanabhay, brought up an interesting point regarding the South African elections earlier in the year. If you were to look at the twittersphere or blogosphere prior to and on the actual election day, you would think no one had voted for the ANC. However the ANC holds popular support amongst the majority of South Africans, the majority of whom are not online.
All of this can be summed up in a tweet that I read recently, it was a quote from Ferial Haffajee on two South Africas: “You have one South Africa tweeting and the other South Africa not eating”
This is the reality of the world we live in. Not everyone is connected. There is a need for us to dig deeper if we truly want to understand the nature of events.
If you want to read up in more detail on the actual role of twitter in Iran, Gaurav Mishra provides a great analysis on the role of twitter. His post also has an extensive list of links to other blogs who have discussed the same issue.