The Iran Election Twitters In a Revolution -- In the Media

In a blur of social networking, news reporting is rebuilt one Tweet at a time.


The father of electronic news-gathering, Edward R. Murrow, broke new ground when he broadcast radio reports from London rooftops during World War II. Murrow let listeners hear what the bombing of Britain was really like, rather than reading a government spokesman's quote in the newspaper.

Previously, Americans listened to their radios to enjoy big band concerts and baseball games, gathering around the living room sofa to tune in to the wireless. But Murrow used the medium for firsthand news reporting—and helped create a new form of journalism. The same thing is happening today.

Initially, big city newspapers' foreign correspondents were providing terrific coverage of the Iranian election and the groundswell of popular support for Mir Hossein Moussavi. They reminded us why "old" journalism is still relevant, giving solid accounts of what was going on at the grass-roots level and adding a healthy dose of analysis for us who are not experts in Iranian society and politics. But then the Iranian government shut down the foreign media, causing a deafening silence from the top level of foreign reporters. As the number of protests started picking up in Tehran and the Iranian government started shutting down websites and televising movies instead of news, Twitter filled the information void. I watched as over 200,000 tweets were posted in one day, some with links to YouTube videos. More than 1,000 photos of a Moussavi rally, showing hundreds of thousands of supporters gathering, were posted on Flickr. But when I turned on the network news, I got healthcare reform and the pilot who died at the controls of a trans-Atlantic flight.

So I went back to Twitter and read protesters' messages telling others which squares the police were blockading and why it was safer to take the wounded to foreign embassies than to hospitals, where the police were waiting. People from around the world sent messages of prayer and support, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Homer, and Gandhi. Tech types advised the protesters to remove the SIM cards and batteries from their cellphones to avoid detection; others encouraged Twitter users to change their settings to make it appear to the state as if all tweets worldwide were originating from Tehran. Many Twitterers changed their online photos to green—the color of the revolution—and many Arabic and Farsi messages were re-tweeted after supporters put them through Google's newly launched translator. But there was also government disinformation, along with follow-up tweets calling it out. Scrolling through it all was confusing and at times overwhelming, but fascinating.

Because it was raw, unfiltered, unreliable, anonymous, emotional, ambiguous, and tainted by disinformation and shades of gray, most of the media stayed away from it. It is easier to run statements from a government spokesman—a real person with a face and an official credential—rather than an anonymous, 140-character tweet. On cable and network news, we saw an occasional Facebook page or tweet, but more often we saw clips from state-run Iranian TV showing no protesters, only empty public squares with a heavy line of bored police. The same photos and interviews seemed to run over and over.

The CNN anchors called it an "information war," but really it was a battle to show who could best harness the only real news source on the ground—the new social media—to report fast, accurate, and insightful information. Cable and network news lost both the battle and the war. Two of the journalists who won were Andrew Sullivan, a political blogger for the old-line magazine Atlantic Monthly, and Nico Pitney of the younger Huffington Post. Sullivan and Pitney looked at the gold mine of information sitting on the new social media platform and, with two staffers, jumped in. Sullivan and his staff cut and pasted the most interesting, useful, and profound tweets into a document he called "Live-Tweeting the Revolution," updated every few minutes. (Sullivan warned the information was unverified; Pitney, doing similar work on his site, did not.) Together, they made sense of it all for the rest of us. Pitney even asked a question at President Obama's news conference that had been sent in electronically by a reader in Iran.