Among the unpleasant surprises that awaited Barack Obama’s administration during the post-election turmoil in Iran, the unexpected role of the Internet must have been most rankling. A few government wonks might have expected Iranians to rebel, but who could predict they would do so using Silicon Valley’s favorite toys? Team Obama, never shy to tout its mastery of all things digital, was caught off guard and, at least for a moment or two, appeared ill-informed about the heady developments in Iranian cyberspace. Speaking a few days after the protests began, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confessed that she wouldn’t know “a Twitter from a tweeter, but apparently, it’s very important”— referring to Twitter, a popular mix between a blogging service and a social network that enables its users to exchange brief messages of up to 140 characters in length.
While Clinton’s response must have pacified aging American diplomats, uneasy about the prospect of attending new-media workshops to bolster their Internet expertise, it didn’t really comport with the popular narrative of events unfolding in Tehran, at least not the one constructed by the U.S. media. This narrative had come to be known as “Iran’s Twitter Revolution.” In the first days after the protests, it was hard to find a television network or a newspaper (never mind the blogs) that didn’t run a feature or an editorial extolling the role of Twitter in fomenting and publicizing the Iranian protests. The modish take of the usually sober Christian Science Monitor is representative of the heavily skewed coverage: “The government’s tight control of the Internet has spawned a generation adept at circumventing cyber roadblocks, making the country ripe for a technology–driven protest movement.”
Whether technology was actually driving the protests remains a big unknown. It is certainly a theory that many in the West find endearing: who would have expected that after decades of blasting propaganda from dedicated radio and television channels, Americans would be able to support democracy in Iran via blogs and social networks? Nice theory, but it has very little basis in reality; in fact, it is mostly American—rather than Iranian—bloggers who are culpable for blowing the role of technology out of any reasonable proportion. Andrew Sullivan, who was tirelessly blogging about the events in Tehran for the Atlantic, emerged as one of the few comprehensive one-stop shops for real-time updates from Iran (or, to be more precise, from the Iranian Internet). Sullivan (and the Huffington Post‘s Nico Pitney) made a significant contribution to how the rest of the media—cut off from access to the streets of Tehran and unable to navigate the new media maze as effectively as well-trained bloggers—portrayed the protests. It was Sullivan who famously proclaimed “The Revolution Will Be Twittered” and called Twitter “the critical tool for organiz...
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