Twitter, Iran and Reality One Year Later
As marketers and just people in general, we depend on statistics and analysis to understand the world around us. We also depend heavily on observation, opinion and perceived expertise of others. We have many different ways to take in information and data about the world around us including social media, which has its pros and cons. The major pro is that we can know have a view of many things that we could never have had before while the biggest con is just that: we can be easily conned.
It’s this last point that made an article on the Foreign Policy site so interesting as it referenced the impact of Twitter during last year’s elections in Iran. Many point to this as a seminal moment in communication because many Twitter accounts of the events were used to spread the word of the plight of the Iranian people. For the most part, that general picture was spread. Turns out, however, that the accuracy of it all may make us think twice about Twitter accounts as primary sources of information for the future depending on the situation.
Before one of the major Iranian protests of the past year, a journalist in Germany showed me a list of three prominent Twitter accounts that were commenting on the events in Tehran and asked me if I know the identities of the contributors. I told her I did, but she seemed disappointed when I told her that one of them was in the United States, one was in Turkey, and the third — who specialized in urging people to “take to the streets” — was based in Switzerland.
Perhaps I shattered her dreams of an Iranian “Twitter Revolution.” The Western media certainly never tired of claiming that Iranians used Twitter to organize and coordinate their protests following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s apparent theft of last June’s elections. Even the American government seemed to get in on the act. Former U.S. national security adviser Mark Pfeifle claimed Twitter should get the Nobel Peace Prize because “without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confidant to stand up for freedom and democracy.” And the U.S. State Department reportedly asked Twitter to delay some scheduled maintenance in order to allow Iranians to communicate as the protests grew more powerful.
But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil.
So what’s the point of bringing this up now? It’s simply a word of caution as to what we believe as the ‘truth’, especially in social media circles, can be misleading at best and downright harmful at worst. Here in the US in particular, we were so quick to give Twitter its due as the great communicator in shaping a significant world event when, in reality, we may have only been doing what we do so well here: drinking our own Kool-Aid.
So how should this serve us as marketers? It’s pretty simple really. We have to be very careful not to let buzz and hype take the place of the truth about anything we are attached to. While setting social media outlets on fire with some juicy tidbits may serve to sell a few more products is that boost in revenue worth the possibility of found out to be nothing more than social media mass hysteria at work? Once anyone gets “found out” like that, rarely does the benefit outweigh the real cost.
It’s been a year already since those elections in Iran created as much buzz for Twitter as it did for the people of Iran fighting for their rights. It’s important to look back on this with time to truly see what took place and learn about what may actually be social media ‘mob rules’. Start the wave and the truth can quickly get pushed aside.
It doesn’t mean it’s all for naught but we must be careful to not give anything more importance than it merits. Why? Because people are gullible and will buy anything; especially if it sounds like something they want to hear. We as users of a tool like Twitter, should exercise some level of responsibility to maintain integrity. As it has been said before, the truth shall set you free.
So the truth with Iran and Twitter?
To be clear: It’s not that Twitter publicists of the Iranian protests haven’t played a role in the events of the past year. They have. It’s just not been the outsized role it’s often been made out to be. And ultimately, that’s been a terrible injustice to the Iranians who have made real, not remote or virtual, sacrifices in pursuit of justice.
So be careful out there. While social media may be fun and effective in many ways, it’s usually not as important as the industry makes it out to be. It’s important for sure but proper perspective of its real importance will make for better use of this potentially powerful tool as we all move forward in the this media new world order.