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Is Twitter’s importance in Iran’s “Green Revolution” overblown?

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Over the last few days the role that Twitter is playing in the nonviolent movement in Iran has been widely lauded. Time magazine dramatically called it the “medium of the movement,” and the U.S. State Department even asked the site to delay its scheduled maintenance earlier this week so that the service would not be interrupted for Iranian users. But how important can Twitter actually be in a country where only 30 percent of the population has access to the internet? Nicholas Thompson over at Danger Room had a great post yesterday that challenges the hype:

We have no idea how many Tweets are spreading through RSS, Facebook pages, and text-messages. Nor do we know how info gets into every Twitter feed. But there’s evidence that the reach of some of the most prominent Iranian “Green Revolution” Tweeters may not be as great as it first appears. For example, many of the Iranian tweeters described in the Western press seem to have between 10,000 and 30,000 followers. That’s a lot; but Ashton Kutcher it ain’t. And many of those followers are in the U.S. Check out @Change_for_Iran, @persiankiwi, @StopAhmadi, @persiankiwi, or @mousavi1388 and you’ll see a lot of American names. At least in the first few pages, it seems to be about a third who are clearly in the U.S.

English-language tweeters of course have English-language followers. But Twitter isn’t set up to make Farsi use easy (for example, you can’t search for Farsi posts in the language section of Twitter’s advanced search feature). In fact, the always helpful Nancy Scola has done a search on Twitter of all users who have listed their location as within 250 miles of Tehran. One interesting result: there are posts there only in Spanish, German, and English.

In an e-mail interview with washingtonpost.com, Evgeny Morozov, a blogger for Foreign Policy magazine and a fellow with Open Society Institute, also had a nuanced take on how important Twitter has been:

…it has been of great help in terms of getting information out of the country. Whether it has helped to organize protests — something that most of the media are claiming at the moment — is not at all certain, for, as a public platform, Twitter is not particularly helpful for planning a revolution (authorities could be reading those messages as well!). However, in terms of involving the huge Iranian diaspora and everyone else with a grudge against Ahmadinejad, it has been very successful.

Surprisingly, BusinessWeek’s Joel Schectman also took a more critical look at Twitter yesterday:

Iran experts and social networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers’ ability to get people on the street. Indeed, most of the organizing has occurred through far more mundane means: SMS text messages and word of mouth.

[…]

Another reason for the hype surrounding Twitter’s role in these protests is the lack of good access for reporters in Iran and the difficulty of covering the story of the protested elections.