Friday, June 19, 2009

The Greening of Twitter

This goes against my natural grain. I really am not a fan of bloggers and writers putting together blog entries about their various "social media" beliefs. Don't believe me, see this. In fact, it was my goal to do as little writing about it as possible. But with the by-now-pretty famous actions of Twitterers and Facebookers of the past week, I've decided I need to.

To those of you reading this who aren't on Twitter, let me explain: my photo is green. On Saturday afternoon, I changed my photo to all-green tones. This was my way of showing my support with the people of Iran - whom I genuinely believe had an election stolen out from under them.

I wasn't the first to alter my photo or avatar. There was one gentlemen, dlayphoto, who did it before me. He's usually very quick to leap into action when he thinks someone has been wronged. He might have been the first, but I don't know. I am absolutely convinced that he was one of the first to do it. I was the first I knew to adjust my photo. Again, I'm not claiming to be the first - and I don't care who was. I made the change, because I thought it was the least we could do to offer support.

To those of you who don't me, I am no wide-eyed young liberal looking to change the world every week. I'm not. I am a middle-aged man with a background in political science and journalism. I take my political beliefs seriously, and yes, by and large they are of the left-handed variety. But, no, I didn't do this to "jump on the bandwagon" or "change the world overnight."

I doubt anyone reading this is unaware of the fact that the current reporting on CNN or NPR or MSNBC or your local news is now coverage the unrest in Iran - the protests, the marches, the violence committed against the supporters of presidential candidate Moussavi's followers by members of the Basij - the Ahmedinajed-supporting militia. You are also likely aware that all of these news outlets are covering the coverage of the accounts - namely, the actions of many of us on Twitter, and to a much lesser extent, on Facebook.

The coverage has been almost embarrassing. For every minute the news channels cover what we're doing on Twitter, a minute where they could be actually covering Iran is lost. A part of me is pleased to see that we've made the mainstream press, but I'd rather that time be given to the people over there - the ones who are living with it.

The coverage has also led to a pretty furious backlash. Many bloggers, writers, and journalists are now decrying the actions of the Iran-Twitterers. They have claimed that there is no actual unrest; it's just being 'broadcast' as such. Another claims that the entire thing has been orchestrated by agents from Israel to destabilize the nation. Still others simply say that anyone involved is simply a "wide-eyed liberal" (or, to be fair "a reactionary conservative") who doesn't know what they're doing, and what they're saying.

I most respectfully disagree.

I was involved when this began. I've been a part of it since the beginning and remain so. As I said earlier, I wasn't the first to get involved - and I don't particularly care who was. But it needs to be understood that I was there from early on, so I can make clear that I saw how it began and how it evolved to what it is now.

With me, it simply started as a rant about CNN's lack of coverage of the elections - and the shameful actions of President Ahmedinejad. I was astonished - along with many others - that CNN simply had never figured that anything would happen. There was no coverage at all for a few hours, and then there were repeated hourly updates from Christiane Amanpour, but none of the wall-to-wall coverage that, frankly, the situation demanded.

I was not the only one who felt this way. I'd guess there were originally a few thousand angry Twitterers who agreed, since the #hashtag we were using to mark our messages (which allows people to track tweets by subject), #CNNfail, began to trend on Twitter - and other people began to take notice and ask what was going on.

Simultaneously in Iran, many young students, furious with the outcome, began venting their frustration through their Tweets. Iranian-born peoples living out of the country, and people of Iranian heritage began to complain, and somewhere in the midst of all this, a change began to occur.

The now-most-common #hashtag, #Iranelection, appeared. It is still in use one week later, and still trending. I began to be followed (Twitterese for "people began to read what I was writing and chose to let me know about it") by people from inside Iran. There were several of these. I was also followed by some of the out-of-country Iranians and some who simply had come from there.

It goes without saying that I also began to be followed by other Westerners of a like mindset. I followed back all of them - out of courtesy, but also out of a chance to tighten up a network of news I was receiving.

Here is where I depart from some of the detractors. Here is where things happen that most of the people who came later simply are not aware.

The tweets I - and others - received from Iran were from people who claimed to be in Iran. I took it first with a grain of salt. For all I knew, these were simply annoyed college students out to make a stink on the internet. This is where many of the detractors have decided it all falls apart. The detractors believe that many, if not all of these, were from outside Iran and in no way represented the people actually living there.

By late Saturday afternoon, I was following 8 or 9 people from inside Iran*. I listened to what they had to say, and in many cases retweeted what they said - so that my other readers would know. A lot of the original information was simply shock, anger, and descriptions of what they were going to do to demonstrate. Not all of it was. Some of them used the tweets to meet with others. Many times I retweeted one of them asking other protesters to meet somewhere. I have no problem with that at all.

But I still didn't have proof that these people were actually there.

Not until they began to back up their posts with photos and videos. There was a pretty standard timeline for this. We would get tweets saying, "The military has attacked people in the street!" (We now believe this was the basij doing that - but to those on the ground, a rifle butt is a rifle butt, regardless of who is wielding it.) Half an hour later, the photos started appearing on Flickr or other photo hosting websites. In each case, the photos backed up the prior tweets. A hour or two after that, we'd get word that a video of the action was now up on YouTube.

This sets up a chain. We would get the notification, then photos, then videos. By Sunday morning (Cali time), there was no question that pro-Ahmedinejad supporters were committing violent actions against the supporters.

Over a very long Sunday, it got worse. Three of the people I had been following simply vanished. I'm not "wide-eyed" enough to think that all fell to violence, but it's easy to assume that some may have been captured, or simply had their ability to communicate taken and/or destroyed. The mainstream media finally acknowledged that this did happen.

On Sunday, CNN added a few hours of Iran coverage, and openly admitted they were pressured to do so by Twitterers - #CNNfail worked in a multitude of ways. But from that day, CNN (which I am using to stand in for all mainstream media) has lagged behind.

Who are they lagging behind? Us. The people wearing green on Twitter. The people in Iran who are still getting the information out. And as far as I'm concerned, the information is still good.

One tweet from Iran was simple: "they're shooting people in the Square!" He followed up by saying he saw a man get shot. A few hours later, someone else posted a link to a photo of a man lying in the square. The next day CNN reported that, indeed, a man had been shot and showed the picture of the man lying there, blood flowing from his head.

If you had only gotten your news from mainstream media, you'd wonder how they got that so fast. I - and everyone else who had seen the tweet and the photos - wondered how they had gotten it so slow.

We continually receive word of what is going on hours before the rest of the media gets it. We retweet it for the people reading us - many of whom now actually live there. I've been thanked numerous times for doing this from people that I now know are there - sometimes for helping them, and sometimes for giving them information.

You question our sources? I assure you: I'm following people whose word is unimpeachable at this point. They've provided their bona fides in so many ways it is impossible to count.

But it's not all about the sources. I don't see this as "social networking done good." I see this as a form of very high-paced citizen journalism. As I take journalism seriously, I take this seriously.

I will ignore any tweet or link that advocates violence. I will take no part in helping someone try to turn protesters into a mob of killers. I won't. I don't know anyone who is. It is rare to see one come my way, but I always respond to them by saying I won't help them with that. I received a video link from a trusted source. I watched the entire video - which showed wounded Iranians, members of the basij attacking others, and footage from the shot-up dormitory. I was about to post the link when I saw it had a caption, which said (and I'm paraphrasing): "We will kill you!" - to the current president. I clicked off and sent the source a reply, asking him not to send me another. I won't advocate that.

If I'm sent a link, I read it. If I'm sent a video, I watch it. I do my due diligence. I receive numerous tweets in Farsi - which is contrary to many of the detractors, who say that none of the people in Iran are tweeting in their home language - and I don't pass them on. I don't know what they say, and I won't be responsible for something I have no knowledge of.

I'm not the only one showing due diligence. I've had conversations with half a dozen Twitterers, checking with each other over whether or not we think something is fake, inaccurate, or shouldn't be posted for any number of reasons. I've rejected some on my own, helped others to reject some, and done everything I can to keep this as true and accurate as I can.

Because there are others who I know are doing the same amount of filtering and checking I am, I feel very comfortable retweeting their information. I know if cbn2, or Cody_K, or dlayphoto posts it, it's good. I know they take this seriously. I know they are trying to keep it as true and accurate as they can. This pleases me.

It's not easy. We now know that Ahmedinejad has people on Twitter, doing their best to put out disinformation and sow confusion. Even mainstream media has begun to realize that. But most of that is done from accounts created after Monday, and most of them have been rooted out and exposed for what they are.

I've been attacked for this. I don't care what some guy with a blog has to say, or what some woman with an axe to grind has to complain about. I had one woman send me a furious stream of insults - "You people don't know anything. You'll RT anything that you see! You don't have a clue about the Middle East." I laughed, told her she was welcome to fuck off, and cut her off. I don't feel I have to defend myself against people who can't be bothered to do their own research, and see how much work we're actually putting into this.

(Once you've had rednecks sending you death threats for saying there would be no Weapons of Mass Destruction found in Iraq, you learn not to care about online attacks one bit.)

It's fair to say that I'm on the first line of information dispersement. I get most of my info from people in Iran, and pass it on to others. I have sources that some of the others don't - and they have some I don't. I pass on what I have to others - many of whom are getting their information from other folks like me. I say this not to blow my own horn, but to say: I take this seriously. When something's wrong, I look into it. When something's right, I pass it along.

I don't care about the "legacy" of Twitter; I don't care about history being made here. I'm convinced that what we're doing is good work, for a good reason.

I do believe that Ahmedinejad stole the election. I do believe that Moussavi likely would've been voted in. I do believe that having a conservative reformer in power there is much superior to having a conservative hardliner - particularly one who denies the Holocaust ever occurred and claims that there are no homosexuals in Iran anywhere.

I don't know if what we're doing will make much difference, but I'm willing to keep trying. I do know that the people of Iran are doing the real work, and they're the ones who will either force a positive change or be forced to live with the consequences. I also know that we - those who are doing nothing more than looking at photos, watching videos, reading tweets from those that are there, and passing that information on - have done some good.

In the end, that's really what I do care about.


  1. Your comments are so right on. I am a relative novice to Twitter and other social networking tools but not to the internet generally. I began following the events in Iran on Twitter and was astounded at what I was seeing. Yesterday in watching CNN cover the Sat. protests, I had seen and read almost everything they were showing and reporting long before they had it on.

    I had not see this material at any obscure or difficult to find sites -- HuffingtonPost and Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish and links from inside Twitter. Not rocket science to say the least. But here was CNN presenting it like it was breaking news.

    I want to express my appreciation for your commitment to truth and integrity in following the activities in Iran. You have certainly provide a model of how to use these tools and work with others using them.

  2. My most sincere apologies. Somehow I failed to realize I had a comment here until tonight. I've been swamped with writing, but that's no excuse.

    Thank you for your appreciation. I did take it seriously - and I still do. I've noticed that, with time and experience, others are doing the same thing. I'm not taking credit for this in any way, but I think there are MANY role models out there that others have utilized.

    Thanks for the visit, and for the warm comment.

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