twitter revolution

Noam Cohen had an article in the NY Times over the weekend assessing the function of Twitter in the Iranian post-election protests. The piece is worth a read because Cohen doesn’t take a rose colored glass view of Twitter. Tweeting has its problems, including the ability of tweeters to spread false information, and it probably isn’t nearly as instrumental in getting protestors to the streets as some Twitter fans claim. Cohen also comments that more traditional mechanisms of movement mobilization, like face-to-face networking, may have been equally or more influential in getting people to the streets. Skeptics warn us not to over-hype the potential effect of tweeting for changing the world.

The piece did remind me though of one very important function that Twitter has – the ability to make public and global knowledge that is otherwise highly local. Spreading insider information about the Iranian protestors’ situations may be the most important thing that tweeting has done for the movement. Protests that go unnoticed are relatively ineffective in getting anyone to change their behavior, let alone getting governments to alter policies or election results. As E-Z argued in an orgtheory post last year, knowledge (or belief) that is held privately by individuals but not known to be public is relatively ineffective at causing people to act. It’s not sufficient that A & B both share the same knowledge, they need to know that the other has that information in order to instigate action/cooperation.

Everyone can have the same knowledge but not know that they have the same knowledge.  This is “pluralistic ignorance” (a term that is widely credited to Floyd Allport, with the earliest cite I have been able to find being from his 1924 book Social Psychology).  Centola, Willer, and Centola (2005) show how the failure of networks to convey what everyone knows (conveying only local knowledge instead, and thus fostering pluralistic ignorance) can systematically lead people to act counter to their true beliefs.  And Adut shows how widespread knowledge of an indiscretion can persist for a long time, with scandal erupting only when the information becomes publicized in such a way that it becomes common knowledge.  The knowledge that I’m a fraud can become widely disseminated, but this knowledge has no effect on my fate unless it is publicized in such a way that it becomes common knowledge.

One of the primary functions of social movements of any kind is to make otherwise hidden beliefs or knowledge openly known to the public (e.g., consider how the civil rights movement illuminated the conditions of the segregationist South to the broader American public). Protesting is essentially a public spectacle intended to create common knowledge. By protesting activists cause people to pay attention to an issue and thereby transmit information/beliefs about that issue into the public. This was a central insight of Michael Lipsky in his classic APSR paper, “Protest as a political resource.” Lipsky goes further to argue that protest creates audiences, or “reference publics,” that can appreciate the significance of a movement’s issue. The attentive audience to a protest helps offset the relative power disadvantage that a movement has in their fight against institutional authorities (i.e., City Hall, corporations, the Iranian government). By enlisting this public in their fight, movements create a new resource base for their cause.

The “problem of the powerless” in protest activity is to activate “third parties” to enter the implicit or explicit bargaining arena in ways favorable to the protesters. This is one of the few ways in which they can create” bargaining resources. It is intuitively unconvincing to suggest that fifteen people sitting uninvited in the Mayor’s office have the power to move City Hall. A better formulation would suggest that the people sitting in may be able to appeal to a wider public to which the city administration is sensitive. Thus in successful protest activity the reference publics of protest targets may be conceived as explicitly or implicitly reacting to protest in such a way that target groups or individuals respond in ways favorable to the protesters (1145-1146).

Given the restrictions that the Iranian government puts on international media, it’s not clear that protesting alone will get Mousavi’s supporters’ message to the broad international public. Tweeting gives outsiders direct access to the voice of the protestors. Coupled with public protest and an inflammatory situation, tweeting is an audience-creating machine.

Written by brayden king

June 22, 2009 at 3:30 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Here here.

    I think you hit the nail on the head Brayden. Tienanmen Square was remarkable for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that CNN was bringing it to us in real time.

    Iran is remarkable on a lot of levels too, but I can’t agree with you more that the importance of the Twitter aspect of it is that it brings us couch-bound observers around the world into the gossip networks. And in doing so, brings us into solidarity; many of us feel we have forged some kind of identity with this movement in a way that seems very new to me.

    Gossip is powerful. Yet it is also unreliable in all of its forms: verbal, symbolic, text-messaged and tweeted. That’s a reality for participants and observers who learn to take gossip at face value as events unfold. Eventually some gossip becomes accepted as fact and mythologized. See: Neda. And that becomes a resource that the movement can use to mobilize participants and forge insurgent identities. But those processes are as old as mass protest has existed.

    Whats amazing is to feel a part of all of that from 8000 miles away. It is the mobilization of us — not necessarily Iranians — that is worthy of note when it comes to the role that Facebook and Twitter are playing in Iran.


    Sean Safford

    June 22, 2009 at 4:05 pm

  2. I think YouTube is also playing quite a fascinating role in the Iran events (often in combination with Twitter). Like CNN’s Tiananmen Square footage, the amateur protest videos are compelling and feel very immediate and “real time” as well. A lot has already been written up about the “Neda” video and its resonance with Iranian conceptions of martyrdom. Who knows if it is authentic, but it seems to be having a powerful effect both inside and outside Iran.



    June 22, 2009 at 4:39 pm

  3. […] of whether social networking and new media outlets are playing a significant role.  Brayden made the point earlier that new media have been more important to mobilizing observers in other countries than in […]


  4. […] to third-parties to support their cause and withhold resources from their targets. Like I argued in an earlier blog post about this topic: Tweeting gives outsiders direct access to the voice of the protestors. Coupled […]


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  6. […] want to discount the role of social media and internet technology in promoting social change. As I’ve said before, the real power of the internet in facilitating activism may be in its ability to create new […]


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