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The death of the “twitter rev­o­lu­tion” and the struggle over internet narratives

By Donya Alinejad In her latest speech on internet freedom, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the internet the “town square” of the 21st cen­tury. Clinton seized on the wide­spread atten­tion for Facebook during the Egyptian rev­o­lu­tion and used the oppor­tu­nity to reit­erate internet-oriented US for­eign policy. Just days ear­lier the Egyptian people had ousted Hosni Mubarak, their dic­tator of 30 years. Cairo’s Tahrir Square had been occu­pied by pro­testers, stained with the blood of the revolution’s mar­tyrs, and gained iconic status as the center of the 21st century’s most pop­u­lous rev­o­lu­tionary move­ment. Soon after, pro­testers in Libya named the Northern Court in Benghazi “Tahrir Square Two.” If these events show us any­thing, it is that the town square of the 21st cen­tury is still, simply, the town square.

Internet Hyperbolae

It is not the first time Clinton’s lan­guage has hyper­bolized the role of the internet, thus making her appear sev­ered from reality. Author and scholar, Eyvgeny Morozov, skill­fully rebutted her first major speech on internet freedom given in January 2010 on these very grounds, expressing unease at the Cold War imagery she evoked in warn­ings that “a new infor­ma­tion cur­tain is descending.” Clinton’s latest speech reminds us that the power struggle over new tech­nolo­gies is not lim­ited to the bat­tles over who uses and con­trols the internet and how. It includes the bat­tles over who gets to define and frame the internet through dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives, and who chal­lenges them.

Perhaps the most wide­spread and heated con­tes­ta­tion of an internet nar­ra­tive is that of the “Twitter Revolution.” Although it was first used with ref­er­ence to Moldova, this term enjoyed its peak during the tumul­tuous after­math of the Iranian pres­i­den­tial elec­tions of June 2009. With his piece, The Revolution will be Tweeted, Andrew Sullivan was quickly estab­lished as a leading pro­po­nent of the hype. He eagerly com­pared the power of the Iranian pro­testers to the elec­toral suc­cess of President Barack Obama the year prior. The only link seemed to be some broad asso­ci­a­tions with demo­c­ratic change and pop­ular asso­ci­a­tions with social media appli­ca­tions such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, but it cer­tainly caught on.

Down with the “Twitter Revolution”!

Unfortunately, Sullivan not only jumped the gun on Iran, his per­spec­tive also obscured the ways the Obama cam­paign had effec­tively hijacked users’ online social net­works, rather than building them, as doc­u­mented in Eric Boehlert’s Bloggers on the Bus. Even though Iran’s case was still devel­oping at the time, tech jour­nal­ists, blog­gers, activists, and independent/public news media imme­di­ately poked the “Twitter Revolution” nar­ra­tive full of holes. These skep­tics chal­lenged the notion that tech­nolo­gies rather than people are deci­sive for social move­ments, and con­tinue to argue for placing new media impacts within wider, offline (socio-economic and polit­ical) con­texts, stressing that the new tech­nolo­gies are “tools” that are used for oppres­sion as well as liberation.

Although Iran’s case car­ried the Twitter Revolution nar­ra­tive to new heights, it also played a part in main­streaming its counter-narratives. Sullivan him­self was soon among those “cured” of the “Twitter obses­sion,” as Morozov put it. And notwith­standing the unfor­tu­nate irony about the “town square” metaphor, Clinton’s latest speech reflected ele­ments of this more bal­anced counter-narrative when she said of Egypt and Tunisia:

People protested because of deep frus­tra­tions with the polit­ical and eco­nomic con­di­tions of their lives. They stood and marched and chanted and the author­i­ties tracked and blocked and arrested them. The internet did not do any of those things; people did. In both of these coun­tries, the ways that cit­i­zens and the author­i­ties used the internet reflected the power of con­nec­tion tech­nolo­gies on the one hand as an accel­erant of polit­ical, social, and eco­nomic change, and on the other hand as a means to stifle or extin­guish that change… We realize that in order to be mean­ingful, online free­doms must carry over into real-world activism.”

Gone is the empow­er­ment of tech­nolo­gies over people. Despite the con­tested “Twitter rev­o­lu­tion” narrative’s par­tial revival through these recent rev­o­lu­tions, we all seem to be sobering up more and more from the new media cel­e­bra­tions. It looks like the counter-narrative has per­me­ated the main­stream, bal­anced the scales, and even pro­nounced the debate around the “Twitter Revolution” dead.

What next?

Perhaps looking back on the rise of this par­tic­ular nar­ra­tive can shed some light on the path for­ward, including how to approach its more subtle but per­sis­tent vari­ants such as “the Wikileaks Revolution” (Tunisia) and “Revolution 2.0” (Egypt). In Iran’s case, techno-utopianism in inter­na­tional cov­erage boomed due to for­eign jour­nal­ists being banned, cred­ited Iranian jour­nal­ists being restricted, and a young, mobile, tech-savvy, and highly edu­cated pop­u­la­tion being at the ready. Certainly, the Western audience’s recog­ni­tion of social media net­working sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as pop­ular, Western, youth-oriented, and benign also played a part. But the “Twitter rev­o­lu­tion” also caught on due to a number of nar­ra­tives that, in the Western con­scious­ness, pre-existed the uprising.

One of them was the idea, cul­ti­vated since the early 2000s, of Iranian dis­si­dent blogger-journalists being driven to the free spaces of the internet in region­ally dis­pro­por­tionate num­bers, and expe­ri­encing per­se­cu­tion for their online, anti-régime endeavors. The sto­ries of per­se­cuted blog­gers like Sina Motallebi and Hossein Derakhshan (still in jail today) come to mind, as does that of Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, the first Iranian blogger to die in prison. In the same period, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion pushed the Iran Freedom Support Act, which was passed in September, 2006. The serendip­i­tous overlap between the rise of the internet’s role in Iranian civil society and the US régime-change agenda seemed to strengthen both. An addi­tional nar­ra­tive, pur­port­edly repro­duced his­tor­i­cally by Iranian dias­pora in the West, was one of Iranians (or “Persians”, rather) as intel­lec­tu­ally and cul­tur­ally advanced, sim­ilar to Westerners, “civ­i­lized,” and proud.

But there was also a deeper story about the internet itself as a vehicle of gen­uine demo­c­ratic change that may have tipped the scales from bal­anced online/offline inter­na­tional sol­i­darity towards over-enthusiasm about internet tech­nolo­gies. Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture traces internet nar­ra­tives from the technology’s begin­nings, and shows that the inter­sec­tion between the internet and visions of utopian soci­eties is as old as the Net itself. Could this utopian gen­esis nar­ra­tive be at the root of today’s internet-boosting?

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Donya Alinejad is a PhD student at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU University). For Standplaats Wereld, she co-authored another article (in Dutch) about the educational reforms in the Netherlands. She also wrote about the media coverage of the Haiti earthquake and the Iranian elections of 2009, including the protests that followed.


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