Twitter's utility as a means to share breaking news is not new. Its track record includes the bombings in Mubai and the landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River.

Over the weekend, Twitter became a hotbed for reporting and discussion of the contentious presidential election in Iran.

Twitter was not only used to share information directly from citizen journalists in Iran witnessing protests and government crackdowns but to criticize CNN for not paying enough attention to the situation in Iran. The claims were similar to the claims we've seen in the past: citizen journalists using Twitter were beating the mainstream media to the punch. ReadWriteWeb and have good overviews.

As an observer who is interested by both new media and old media, I couldn't help but notice that something was largely missing from the conversation: context.

Like most of the people on Twitter, I don't live in Iran. I don't have close friends who live in Iran and I'm not an expert on Iran and its politics. That means that I'm not qualified to judge what is taking place right now. I know that the events transpiring in Iran are important and anytime there are claims of election fraud and government abuse in any country, it's worthy of attention.

But when it comes to the situation in Iran, separating fact from fiction (and information from misinformation) is very difficult on Twitter.

What we do know: there are lots of people who are upset about the election results and major protests are taking place in Tehran. Some of these have turned violent and the situation in Tehran appears chaotic.

Images from a site called show dramatic scenes and have been circulating on Twitter. Videos of police hitting protesters have been uploaded to YouTube and have also made the rounds on Twitter. But photos and videos alone offer no context.

In many photos, we see streets aflame. But who set them on fire? According to one Wall Street Journal report, protesters emptied a bus and then proceeded to torch it. Time also reports that "Groups of mostly young men have set large garbage bins on fire in the middle of streets, torn out street signs and fences, broken the windows and ATM machines of state banks, and burnt at least five large buses in the middle of streets".

In one photo, we see a man throwing an object at police. Did they attack him first or is he the aggressor?

In one video, we see a woman being hit by baton-wielding police officers. But she was also seen kicking one of them from behind at the start of the video. Was she defending herself against a repressive police force or was she trying to provoke an attack?

Photos and videos are one thing, alleged first-hand reports are another. A number of Twitter accounts appeared to tweet first-hand accounts of the events taking place. But there was little ability to verify these accounts.

One Twitterer (@change_for_iran) claimed to tweeting from a dormitory under attack by a militant group. Another issuing reports, @TehranBureau, claims to be "An independent online magazine about Iran and the Iranian diaspora". The domain was registered on June 8, 2009 by a person in California and according to a story announcing the launch of the original Tehran Bureau blog on, "A recurrent theme in Tehran Bureau's coverage this year will be revolution and exile".

How trustworthy are reports from these sorts of accounts? Should we assume that they're somehow free from individual bias or an agenda? Even if these accounts are 'real', which they very well could be, we cannot discount the fact that they'd be bringing us reports from just one of many possible perspectives.

One thing is clear: it's easy to look at all of the raw information and media coming out of Iran and come to a conclusion based entirely upon who you personally believe is right or wrong. If you believe that a major injustice has taken place, everything you read or view will convince you that the protesters in Iran are simply fighting for what's right using any means possible. If you believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the election fair and square, everything you read or see will convince you that protesters who can't believe that their candidate didn't win are fomenting civil unrest and violence.

Or, you might be like me. I'm completely willing to admit that I have absolutely no idea what's going on and that I'm not going to jump to conclusions based upon unsubstantiated rumors originating from sources unknown with agendas unknown.

Twitter has no doubt proven its worth as a worth tool for sharing raw, unfiltered information. This is particularly useful in the current situation because mainstream media organizations have largely been forced to curtail coverage by the Iranian government. That's unfortunate but even more unfortunate is the fact that many people on Twitter who are not citizen journalists seem eager to participate in 'revolution by proxy'. And they're missing the important facts that aren't evident from the raw, unfiltered photos and videos they share.

Perhaps the most educational article I've read about the situation was written by Abbas Barzegar and published by The Guardian. In it, Barzegar also faults the mainstream media. Not for failing to appropriately report the aftermath of the election, but for failing to appropriately report in the days leading up to it. In detailing the political and religious nuances that exist within Iran he notes that "Iran isn't Tehran" and suggests that:

As far as international media coverage is concerned, it seems that wishful thinking got the better of credible reporting.

He explains that the mainstream media's promotion of the possibility that Mousavi was a viable contender to win the presidency was based largely on the fact that the mainstream media, for natural reasons, found it easier to speak to Mousavi supporters. He hints that this did not provide a balanced or accurate view of the dynamic of the country.

The possible irony is striking: if Barzegar is correct, those on Twitter who are criticizing the mainstream media for failing to report on those fighting against a 'stolen' election were themselves misled by the mainstream media into believing that Mousavi couldn't have lost the election by the margin it is reported he did.

So back to the philosophical debate about new media versus traditional media.

Right now, nobody is kicking butt; everybody is losing. New media is delivering compelling first-hand reports and images but they lack context. Most of the voices on Twitter seem unwilling to apply the rational analysis that synthesizes context. That sort of analysis is supposed to be provided by professional journalists, who we hope and trust will look objectively at the situations they report on. To help us discern truth. Because justice and truth are not mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the CNNs of the world are reporting on Iran, few in the Twittersphere seem to care. And it's pretty clear they don't want more coverage; they want a premature proclamation that the election was stolen and that there is a revolution taking place. Of course, making such a proclamation at this time would violate a major tenet of journalism (eg. reporting what you believe to be evidence of the truth).

One thing is for sure: there may or may not be a revolution building in Iran but keyboard fighters on Twitter have found their revolution. Sadly, at a time when one of the world's most historic cities is in chaos, their revolution has absolutely nothing to do with the people of Iran.

Photo credit: .faramarz via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 15 June, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (9)

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Marcos Nobre

Hi Patricio.

Congrats on your very reasonable point of view. You said everything I wanted to say about this whole situation. Can I translate our post to portuguese with all the credits you deserve?

Cheers. All the best,

Marcos Nobre

about 9 years ago


Aidan Thornton

The Guardian piece may appear educational, but it's also wrong. It was always a possibility that voters in rural areas would result in a win for Ahmedinejad, and this was even reported in a lot of worldwide news sources (though not as widely or as well as it should've been).
That's not what happened, though. According to the election results, Ahmedinejad got a significant majority everywhere. He got it in rural areas and in urban areas, even in strongholds of Mousavi like Tehran. There were also apparently other unbelievable results, like the candidate from one of the ethnic minority groups getting the same 1% in his home region as he got in the rest of the country, when he got more like 12% last time.
Basically, the election results aren't just rigged, they're almost certainly totally made up, and really badly at that. The reason for this is probably exactly that Iran never rigged an election, so the leadership panicked when the results came in, made something up that gave a landslide for the incumbent, and didn't bother to make them plausible.
This is why the population are so upset.

about 9 years ago



I absolutely agree with the points your article makes.  Perhaps the most concise and educated I have read.  People on Twitter may have seen some hashtag of #freeIran or #CNNfail and in the hopes of appearing more humanitarian, may have retweeted posts without researching for themselves.  I understand because that is how news travels in real life too.  A "friend" tells you something and assuming they are credible you report the story to someone else.  But this is the whole reason I don't believe citizen journalism can completely overtake credible trained journalists, because there is a lack of accuracy and fact checking.  I have seen several of the photos from Iran and it's true, yes there looks like much destruction is going on, but you can't extract any factual information from them.  I think people as a whole are just more apt to beleive that the government in Middle Eastern countires are of course corrupt.  I would also not be surprised if most of those on Twitter repeating the #CNNfail hashtag did not actually seek news on CNN in  the first place.  Great article.

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about 9 years ago


Andrew Wise, Lemon Cat Ltd

In the ongoing revolution in Journalism one thing will still be important - trust in the journalists who write the reports.  No matter whether a story is reported in a blog on the Internet or in a UK daily newspaper we need to know we trust our sources.

This is achieved through reputation - or in other words Brand.  We know we can trust the Guardian because it is a brand that can be trusted and if its discovered being untrustworthy it will loose that image and then its readership.

The same thing will grow in the Internet space - maybe only in its early stages now, but as it develops and matures the online reputation of bloggers will be just as important and will come to have a brand value to those bloggers.  This brand reputation will also extend to aggregators of blogs such as techmeme, digg etc - the bloggers who demonstrate consistent honesty and good writing will rise to the top and gain their own reputations / brand images.

about 9 years ago


David B. Briones

I don't mean to be a party-pooper on your post, but it's a bit off. Any information is better than no information which would be exactly the case if these videos and photos were not coming out. Also, many of the photos being released are by AP (Associated Press) photographers who are also cut-off from communications to their superiors.

To keep a clear head while you look at all this information is, of course, advisable. But to say that these twitter channels are lacking in something is stating the obvious. It is clearly not the preferred method to report things on the ground, but it's the only way!

If real new sources had been able to break through the information blockade and report from the ground in Iran I would of course refer to those reports. But they don't exist.

Last, you write that you see violence and chaos but you don't know who actually "caused" it, implying that it could just be all those rowdy youth who just want to burn things or something to that affect. The fact that the Iranian Government has shut down all communications and journalism should be a very BIG hint that the people causing the worst damage and violence are not the protestors. If they were, the government would gladly televise their actions so they could appear justified when they take harsh actions. No, the reason they shut down all media is because they're doing bad things to those resisting and they know they would be shunned by the world if it was captured in video or photo.

For those interested in what this is really about in Iran (and it's not just election fraud) read this:

Iran: The Question of Illegitimacy Is Bigger than that of Electoral Fraud

about 9 years ago



The reason Twitter beats CNN etc is with 'immediacy' and 'quality', but only sometimes.

It only stands to reason. How can CNN or BBC compete with the larger geographically relevant and niche subject relevant workforce at Twitter.

Twitter has more quality BUT only on some occasions. CNN and BBC currently have on average more quality simply because they are professional news journos and have more space to write, albeit a Tweet can link to a blog etc.

... as soon as you have a BRAND at play that has to maintain it's reputation it is better not to report than to report quickly and incorrectly. Some Twitterers care about quality and some don't, so you will always have a mixed bag which is why on reflection CNN and BBC are easier places to find quality than Twitter. If you knew which Twitterers had the quality on the day, then Twitter would win. Quality generally takes a little more time.

As soon as Twitterers gain reputation they start building there own 'trust brand', they get better known and people seek them out, hence why you and i are reading the Econsultancy blog now.

My conclusion – Twitter generally wins on immediacy, CNN/BBC et al win on quality. BUT in the case of the Iranian election Twitter did win on both counts ‘yesterday’ against CNN. This simply because quality was there, you just needed to be able find it, so was immediacy. At CNN quality was not there at that moment because they had done nothing. Today CNN will win on quality.

PS. Twitter can win on quality but only if you know who to look at, and this is currently not always possible. Hence why Twitterers need a quality stamp somehow, then you would go to the top quality Twitterer in Iran and watch as the feeds came in. But on this basis CNN could do the same, if they had just one person in place at the time. Twitter is increasingly everywhere, it will only be a matter of time before you go to the Twitterers with the highest quality stamp. Then they can compete on quality as well and not just immediacy and ‘hunt the quality’.

about 9 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


I think you miss the point of the post.

Nobody is saying that the regime in Iran isn't repressive. Nobody is saying that the foreign press ban doesn't raise serious questions. And nobody is saying that having raw, unfiltered information coming out of Iran is a bad thing. Indeed, it is a very good thing.

What I am saying:

  • Separating fact from fiction is difficult.
  • Validating sources is difficult.
  • Putting things in context is difficult.
  • First-hand reports are never free from individual bias.

99% of the data on Twitter is noise. Just people retweeting opinions, showing support and in the worst cases, promulgating unsubstantiated rumors that, on the surface, seem to lack credibility. That doesn't mean that there isn't signal but again, separating the signal from the noise and putting it in context is very difficult to do, especially when most of us have very little knowledge of Iran, its politics and its culture.

The biggest point I make in my post is that most people have already come to a conclusion as to what is taking place in Iran and the information that they consume through Twitter and sources that provide no context will only convince them of what they already know to be true in their heart.

For instance, you write:

Last, you write that you see violence and chaos but you don't know who actually "caused" it, implying that it could just be all those rowdy youth who just want to burn things or something to that affect. The fact that the Iranian Government has shut down all communications and journalism should be a very BIG hint that the people causing the worst damage and violence are not the protestors.

You ignored the links I provided which make it pretty clear that Mousavi supporters have been engaged in violent protest. Now this is not to say that violent resistance cannot be justified. In the final analysis, we may find that violent resistance was the only way for them to obtain justice. We may also find that it wasn't. I'm in no position to judge the actions of anybody in Iran; the circumstances are chaotic and the number of things I don't know is far greater than the number of things I do know.

But your apparent disbelief that any violence is being initiated by Mousavi supporters in the face of credible reports to the contrary highlights the fact that individual truths (e.g. the fact that both sides are engaged in violent acts) can be ignored if they don't fit into your worldview.

Finally, perhaps the most disturbing thing to me about what I observe on Twitter is that many people seem to be consumed by the idea that they're participating vicariously in 'revolution'. The situation in Iran, which is tragic regardless of where you stand, to many seems to be little more than a proxy for expressing personal views about geopolitics, proving that social media is better than traditional media, etc. In other words, it's not about the people of Iran, it's about self-expression. That's sad to me.

I for one hope that the people of Iran resolve this situation with minimal loss of life and property. But I'm not going to believe that I know who actually won the presidential election and I'm not narcissistic enough to believe that I have a role to play in Iranian self-determination.

about 9 years ago


David B. Briones


Thank you for your reply.

Twitter occupies a unique position as a source to get unfiltered information released to the world at large. To say that Twitter represents the "new media," as you put it, is misleading. There are real alternative news sites that provide the verification and quality that "old media" claims to have. You're making a straw man argument using Twitter as the model for new journalism when it is merely a small, small tool of it. The website I linked on my name, for instance, is an example of independent journalism with validity. Twitter is merely a tool of communications, just like a cell phone or instant messengers, that is being used as a reporting tool in desperation. To use Twitter as your main example for "new media" in your debate of "new media vs. old media" shows just how weak that position and thesis really is.

First, let me make clear that I'm sure the protestors are indeed responsible for much of the burned and destroyed things we have seen in photos. I too agree with you that dignified rage is understandable when you feel you've been violated. But we have also seen photos of Iranian militia taking part in destroying property as well. The reason I objected to your original post was because I felt that you were implying that the violence was only being caused by the protestors.

Second, the points you make about not being able to verify information is assumed, and the very fact that you rely so much on that argument is suspect, since any informed person understands already that everything from these twitter reports must be taken with a grain (or many grains) of salt. Once again, it's the only way many people inside of Iran can communicate to the outside.

Third, your blanket acceptance that commercial media (CNN, NBC, BBC etc.) can be trusted for reliable information is a fallacy. They have terrible reputations and more often than not they are the perputrators of censorship and false reporting! Their coverage of the time before the US declared war on Iraq is a perfect example of this, not to mention their coverage of US Election Fraud in 2000 and 2004.

Fourth, you mention that you're worried about people living vicarously in revolution by twittering about it. My question to you is: So what? Why do you care so much about them? Many of them are well-intended and the worst they're doing is clogging the twitter channels for those who really need it. You can't really blame them for wanting to act against something they see as unjust and wrong. You're completely oblivious to the mentality of many, many people in the world who feel that they are in a similar situation than those in Iran. Are you really sad (wow!) that they feel obligated to help in any way possible because they know in the same situation they would hope that others would be as supportive of them? They're trying to help, which I can say is more than your are doing. If they end up looking like and being fools, why should you worry about preventing them from doing so?

Fifth, while you chide me for not reading your links you do the same by ignoring mine. What is happening in Iran is much, much more  than whether the election results were "wrong" or "right." The youth and reform movement in Iran have been waiting for an oppurtunity like this for years! When the eyes of the entire world are on Iran and with a legitamate complaint that resonates in the ears of justice-loving people all over. This is a poltical tactic that rises above the simple question of election legitamcy. Don't ignore the magnitude of what's happening.

In closing, the part of your thesis that Twitter reports cannot be verified is true. But as I mentioned, you really didn't need to write an essay for that. It's obvious!

They lack context, eh? Well how is this for context: Those using twitter in Iran are doing so as their last resort to maintain connections with the "outside world." Why? Because everything else has been shut down. To go on to say "everyone is losing" borders on the ludicrous.

about 9 years ago


David B. Briones

More points for the argument that Iranians are winning, not losing with the help of Twitter:

US State Department to Twitter: Keep Iranian tweets coming

about 9 years ago

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