Tweeting the Revolution

The 2009 post-election protests in Iran are sometimes called the “Twitter Revolution” for the perceived impact social media services, such as Twitter, had on the uprising. But how decisive a role did social media actually play in challenging the existing power structure in Iran?

Philipp Mueller and Sophie van Huellen, in their article “A Revolution in 140 Characters: Reflecting on the Role of Social Networking Technologies in the 2009 Iranian Post-Election Protests,” attempt to analyze the role and impact of social media in the 2009 Tehran protests. They present two possible hypotheses for what happened: the “power-shift” hypothesis and the “media-shift” hypothesis.

The “power-shift” hypothesis argues that “many-to-many” media such as Facebook and Twitter empowers the masses, changing the power structure in society and resulting, in this case, in widespread protest. Mueller and van Huellen are skeptical of this hypothesis, arguing that social media probably did not reach the mass population within Iran.

For one, Iran’s Internet censorship system is among the most extensive in the world, and the majority of Iranians probably lack the technical knowledge to circumvent it. For another, the authors point out that many activists requested that people outside Iran change their Twitter account location to Tehran to mislead the government. As a result, it was extremely difficult to distinguish between the number of people tweeting inside versus outside Iran.

The authors acknowledge that some social media was used between opposition leaders and their followers, and furthermore that the use of social media did attract the international community’s attention and support, giving the opposition some legitimacy. But for the majority of Iran’s citizens, lack of access probably limited the impact of social media in the protests. Consequently, Mueller and van Huellen argue that most of the mobilization probably happened through more conventional channels, such as word-of-mouth or text messaging.

The “media-shift” hypothesis claims that social media technologies substantially impacted the traditional mass media cycle and the nature of mass communication. Mueller and van Huellen are more convinced by this hypothesis. They note that, after the Iranian government expelled foreign journalists and imprisoned domestic journalists, much of the Western media’s coverage relied on information gathered through social media platforms. If international news had been reliant purely on traditional and centralized production of mass-media information then there would have been far less coverage.

While traditional Western mass media continued to have a role, the 2009 events in Iran showed that traditional journalists needed to be aware of and sensitive to conversations on the Web. The authors argue that while social news production impacted the traditional mass media by providing a new source of information, it has not superseded traditional mass media.

In sum, Mueller and van Huellen argue that social media played a decisive role in changing the agenda-setting process of Western mass media and in raising international awareness of the 2009 protests. In doing so, social media may have helped the opposition movement gain legitimacy. However, social media was not able to change the powerscape or effectively mobilize the masses within Iran.

Feature Photo: cc/dougcurran'
Britta Glennon
Britta Glennon is a Staff Writer for the Review and an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in technology, Internet, and telecommunications policy.

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