Thoughts About the Great Iranian Twitterstorm

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I am not much for commenting on politics. They’re sort of mushy and non-rigorous in a way that I have trouble parsing with my nerdy brain. But I have been asked to have some thoughts about Twitter and the protests that are going on in Iran.

I read Douglas Rushkoff’s piece in The Daily Beast, which I think does a good job of summing up the Twitter-will-save-the-world-from-tyranny line, which we heard some of from Andrew Sullivan as well. Quoth Rushkoff: “The age of the totalitarian dictatorship is over.”

I recognize that Twitter has done a lot to embolden and coordinate the opposition to Ahmadinejad, and engage the interest and emotions of the rest of the world. But there are some things I’m still not clear on:

— Who is doing the tweeting that we see? The stuff in English, not the stuff in Farsi? And to what end? How many Iranians are actually tweeting, and how many are actually following? The scale of this thing is hard to gauge — whether it’s truly “mass” or not.

— Anecdotally, from Time‘s people in Tehran, I’m told that a lot of the tweeting is done by “hyphenated” Iranians for Western benefit. The protesters tend to work by more private means. Which makes sense in a country that actually debated the death penalty for bloggers. If that’s true, are we in the West just being self-congratulatory? We’re helping! We made Twitter!

— Why haven’t the authorities blocked Twitter, if it’s that powerful? I’m not getting any hard information that they’ve shut it down, or not completely. Network engineers tell me it’s not at all unfeasible. There aren’t that many pipelines in and out of Iran, and even with proxies it’s theoretically possible to spot Twitter-traffic. It’s hard not to wonder whether it’s just too useful to the government, as a tool for keeping track of the opposition and for spreading disinformation. Otherwise why leave it up?

— How powerful is Twitter, really? And those DDOS attacks on government websites? Does it mean anything at all, as long as Ahmadinejad has the military?

These are just stray rhetorical questions from the proud owner of a tight deadline and an article-in-progress.

[Update: awesome statistical analysis of the Iran election returns from Jordan Ellenberg. This is why politics needs more nerds.]