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 News.com 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 TehranLive.org 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 TehranBureau.com 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 blogspot.com, “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.