Ethan Zuckerman's musings on Africa, international development
and hacking the media.
It's been an interesting few days for people who study social media. As the protests over election results have continued in Iran, and Iranian authorities have prevented most mainstream journalists from reporting on events, there's been a great deal of focus on social media tools, which have become very important for sharing events on the ground in Iran with audiences around the world. I, like many of my friends at the Berkman Center and Global Voices, have spent much of the past two days on the phone with reporters, fielding questions about:
- Whether social media is enabling, causing or otherwise driving the protests in Iran
- How Iranian users are managing to access the internet despite widespread filtering
- The ethics (and practice) of distributed denial of service attacks as a form of information warfare
- Whether such online activities are unprecedented
Rather than tell you what I and colleagues have been saying to reporters, I'll point you to one of the better stories, by Anne-Marie Corley in MIT's Technology Review - she interviews several of my Berkman and Open Net Initiative colleagues and outlines the argument many of us are making:
- Social media is probably more important as a tool to share the protests with the rest of the world than it is as an organizing tool on the ground.
- Iranians have been accessing social networking sites and blogging platforms despite years of filtering - there's a cadre of folks who understand how to get around these blocks and are probably teaching others.
- Because so many Iranians use social media tools - often to talk about topics other than politics - they're a "latent community" that can come to life and have political influence when events on the ground dictate.
Gaurav Mishra rounds up dozens of blog and MSM articles and offers an excellent overview of arguments around these questions (with a strong dose of his own interpretation, much of which I share.) He references Evgeny Morozov, who's got a thorough denunciation of DDOS as a strategy for protest, correctly pointing out that it mostly functions to make participants feel better about themselves by giving them a way to feel involved with the protests. Unfortunately, unlike positive online gestures of solidarity (retweeting reports from Iran, turning Twitter or Facebook pictures green), this one does little more than piss off sysadmins, helps Iranian authorities make the case that forces outside Iran are "attacking the country" and encourage user-driven censorship as a response to unwanted speech.