The “Twitter Revolution”: A Comparative Study of Iran and Venezuela

This post was written as part of a research blogging assignment for Stanford’s Networked Rhetorics class.  For more about this assignment, click here.

For my research-based class here at Stanford University, I have chosen to study the political impact that Twitter has had on countries ruled by oppressive governments.  Though I am certainly pooling from many sources to form my initial impression and to begin to create an argument, I am currently looking specifically at an article titled “Iran: Downside to the ‘Twitter Revolution’” by Evgeny Morozov.  Though he seems to be addressing the same basic topic as I, he brings in the novel idea of the American role in this issue, and makes comparisons to similar events that predate the current situation in Venezuela, including Iran, Moldova, and Leipzig.

Morozov makes two very important comparisons – Iran to Moldova and to Leipzig.  The Moldovan use of Twitter was much more successful than that of the Iranians because of the pure spontaneity of it.  As Morozov points out, the protests in Iran were not at all spontaneous.  The campaigns of the various candidates were well established from the beginning.  In Moldova, a so-called “flashmob” became a massive rally because of the speed of Twitter.  Indeed, we may reference a particularly relevant xkcd comic, in which tweets move faster than waves of an earthquake.  Twitter can bring about these spontaneous gatherings, but Morozov argues that in comparison to Moldova, this is not the case in Iran.  The other major comparison Morozov makes is to Leipzig in 1989, in which massive sociopolitical change was effected by “…young people, armed with fax machines and an occasional Xerox copier, taking on the brutal dictators – and winning….”  Again, we see this trend of new technology enabling people to stand up to the governments they face and sometimes even beat them.

One idea that Morozov uses as a hook but in fact furthers my argument is the American reaction to the use of Twitter, in Iran and in general.  A central tenet to my current argument is that Twitter enables those who were previously silenced to be heard.  As Morozov points out, so far this only really applies on a primary source basis to those well-off enough to own a device from which to tweet and in many cases also have a working knowledge of English.  Regardless, governments with substantial sets of enemies must be very wary of what could be used against them.  This has led to a recent development that I am exploring regarding Venezuela.  Hugo Chavez, the well-known dictator, has recently become aware of the power of the Internet in enabling opposition forces to his oppressive regime, and has decided to combat these Internet threats with an Internet-based attack, involving “cybersoldiers” and a blog that serves as his “trench on the internet.”  The American government, on the other hand, is much less concerned with the Internet as a threat, possibly due to the relatively high level of liberty American citizens have as compared to citizens of Iran or Venezuela.  Morozov quotes Hillary Clinton when she said “…that she wouldn’t know ‘a Twitter from a tweeter, but apparently, it’s very important.’”  Those involved in the American government and more specifically the Obama Administration had not considered Twitter as a force to consider until they saw it in action in Iran.

A related issue that Morozov addresses is that of American involvement in the “Twitter Revolution” of 2009 in Iran.  He points out the seemingly obvious fact that much of what we saw in news coverage and such was written in English.  If Twitter was being used solely  for internal Iranian purposes, I doubt that they would feel the urge to write their tweets in English.  No, many of the tweets and blogs, Morozov states, are actually authored by Americans, who through their zeal to support a cause actually allowed the Iranian government more insight into the opposition cause and in some ways may have helped in the total crushing of the rebellious spirit in Iran, or so Morozov argues.  I need to do more outside research to be able to address this issue properly, and to take into account the possibility that even tweets authored by non-Iranians could have had an impact in the situation at the time.  From here, perhaps I can make some statement about the way that American involvement may or may not impact Venezuelan affairs.

–Luisa Russell, Stanford University, Class of 2012

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This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The “Twitter Revolution”: A Comparative Study of Iran and Venezuela

  1. Yoshika says:

    Hi Luisa,

    This is a very interesting topic with important implications. You’ve clearly done quite a bit of research and it looks like the Morozov book will be a great source. It’d be interesting to look more into why there were those differences that he finds between Iran and Moldova in terms of how technology has changed/how technology is integrated into the culture in these areas. In the project, it would also be interesting to know more about how the communication and use of technology led to physical action in the countries. The flash-mob example is a good one. This all seems to flow very well as you incorporate the views of the Obama administration and then conclude with American involvement in all of this. Implications of American involvement will be very interesting, and maybe you can look at citizen action and government action separately because I think in this case they’re very different. Overall though, really interesting, and it sounds like an incredibly relevant topic and useful as well!

  2. Charles says:

    The last section, where you mentioned Americans tweeting about the protests in Iran, reminded me of Emily’s topic on slactivism. It doesn’t take much effort to send a tweet or even retweet something but it gives people a sort of “do-gooder street cred”, as Emily calls it, and makes them feel like they have made a difference even though they haven’t exerted that much effort and might not even known much about the cause. This example is interesting because it is a case of how American slactivism can actually be causing harm. Even though people who responded to the protests through twitter might have had good intentions, they might have actually played a role in quelling the protests.
    I think it is also worth exploring how the American government deals with twitter as opposed to Iran. Even though American politicians don’t see twitter as a threat, many politicians, even the president, have a twitter of their own. But the way twitter is used in America for political reasons is a lot different than its use in Iran. In America, politicians use twitter as a tool to spread their own agenda and some even use it as a way of communicating with the people they represent. I don’t know how this use differs from the defensive internet strategy that you said Hugo Chavez is taking but it would be interesting to explore the differences.

  3. Yiam says:

    The paper you found is interesting and it is very related to your project. It seems that he use other information war [not just social net, but fax & copiers included.] to illustrate the point and generalize them into the same topic. And seems like that approach works. But you might want to focus on only twitter. Another interesting about the research is that it shows how much foreigners could influence the internal politics inside a country. I do not think this has ever happened before without negative response.

  4. christinealfano says:

    I’m intrigued by the reference to the issue of what language the tweets were written in. This definitely complicates what seems to be a really clear relationship between twitter and giving voice to an oppressed people. Who is doing the writing? And who is the intended audience? Clearly the audience at least was intended to be English-speaking.

    Have you seen this one, btw? http://twitter.com/mousavi1388/status/2156978753

  5. Landen says:

    Luisa,

    This is a really interesting topic and it sounds like you have gotten off to a great start. One thing that you might want to look into is how do you know that people who “were once previously silenced” are the ones using the twitters or some of the ones using Twitter? While I don’t know if this is possible (considering I have never used Twitter before) looking into the background of the tweeters you are using will help support your argument. I think this also applies to the American tweets you cited as well. Looking at who these people are, whether they are upper class, middle class, or lower class, and if they are involved with any organization will improve your argument. Good luck!

    -Landen

  6. Reuben Perez says:

    I was really impressed with this premise. You seem to have a really good source to base your argument on. I would only from regurgitating exactly what Morozov says in his argument. Make sure that you are bringing something new to the table. But I thought that this topic was very interesting. As an avid tweeter, as well as facebooker, I am always interested to see the potential of social networking sites, beyond the simplicity of tagging pictures and saying what you’re doing. Some questions I had while reading this were: When did Twitter first come to Iran? I found it interesting that mousavi1388 had about half of his tweets in persian and half in English; does he want the world to be reading it so to gain sympathizers to his cause? Is he the one tweeting for the mobs, or is there another party involved? But as I said before this seems to be a great start to your essay and the exigence is obvious. Good Luck!

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