A year after the reportedly stolen election in Iran that saw the rise of the Green Movement (now a non-entity, forced out of the public sphere by government crackdowns), conversation turned to a retrospective on the role that Twitter played in organizing the initial street protests and rallies that marked the remarkable opposition to the government. At the time, the reactions and bold resistance to the government earned the moniker “the Twitter revolution” thanks to the role the site played in allowing news to filter out to the rest of the world. But more importantly to supporters of that label, it was because of Twitter that the opposition was even able to organize. Twitter provided a medium, outside the control of the government, for angry Iranians to rouse their fellow citizens and cement a unified opposition through the sharing of stories and disaffection while rapidly and widely getting the word out about times and locations for Green Movement rallies. Twitter was the catalyst and the means for the Iranians to vent their anger and stand up to their government.
Not so, according to many who have deemed the Twitter Revolution more hype than reality. Twitter was certainly helpful in spreading stories of government repression and letting protesters know where to be, but it did not create the Green Movement, nor did its use suddenly empower Iranians. Golnaz Esfandiari does an excellent job of summarizing these arguments that “Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil.” Twitter helped, but a year later, it is clearer that it was more useful to those outside Iran, than those doing the actual organizing and protesting.
I bring this up now because as I look at the Free Gaza flotilla, I am struck by the lack of a role that Twitter played in contrast. The flotilla was, like the protests in Iran, organized by traditional means and its story was carried by traditional news media and blogs more powerfully than any hash tag could have. The goal of the flotilla was to call attention to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and when this blockade is eventually lifted, the flotilla is sure to be cited for its influence. But where was Twitter? It seems that Gretta Berlin hasn’t needed it in the way observers of Iran a year ago would have predicted. Instead, it looks like the Free Gaza flotilla has demonstrated that social networking is more useful for armchair commentary while actual political changes will continue to rely on traditional organizing. In looking back, would Twitter have brought about a different end to ills like apartheid, will it be considered instrumental in ending the blockade on Gaza, or will it be called on again in Iran? The world will continue to change and progress as it always has, but social media appears only to be another “town crier”, and not the next “printing press” as many hoped.