During the recent spate of revolutions in the Middle East you couldn't turn on the news without hearing a comment about how important Twitter or Facebook was to the protesters. By the time a former national security advisor suggested nominating Twitter for the Nobel Peace Prize, you probably got the impression that social networking was saving the world.
Sadly, the reality is that Twitter was about as important to the revolution as Bill Paxton was to the marines in Aliens. Why? Because ...
At the height of the 2009 "Twitter Revolution" in Iran, the number of Twitter users reportedly based in Iran was around 20,000. Consider that Iran has a population of 77 million, and that number looks a lot less impressive -- it's a minuscule 0.03 percent; less a revolution than a bake sale.
Unless the definition of the word "revolution" is "any group of more than two angry people."
But hell, it's still possible to imagine 20,000 people sparking a regime change ... until you realize that number is also bullshit. The vast majority of them turned out to be people from all around the world who simply changed their Twitter location to "Tehran" in a scheme to confuse the Iranian authorities, whom they apparently thought of as the least competent law enforcement agency since Police Squad. Factor that in, and estimates of the number of active Twitter users in Iran is as low as 1,000 people.
Despite all the news stories about protests being organized through social networking, most demonstrations were arranged through text messaging, word of mouth or the time honored method of "Hey, it sounds like there's a riot happening down the street, let's go check it out."
"Could you guys keep it down? I'm trying to sleep."
Aside from the fact that many protesters don't even have Internet access, social networking is sort of a shitty way to organize. There's no leadership or sense of direction -- just a lot of people screaming about how much they hate the government. And that's just when we try to get a few friends together for a poker night. Attempting to get anything important accomplished multiplies the problem tenfold.
"It took us four hours to plan a trip to the theater. Those Iranian kids must be rolling in Ritalin."
To organize an effective protest, you need structure and people who are truly committed to the cause -- willing to be arrested or killed. Social networking provides the exact opposite. History has shown that you're best off working with people you're close to -- they're the ones who will listen to your crazy ideas. Invite 500 of your Facebook friends to a protest, and 498 will RSVP "maybe" (meaning no) and the two who show up will only be there because they want to see you get your ass kicked by the riot police.
"Go for it, Steve. You can totally take them."
Case in point: In February, a huge protest in Syria organized over Facebook failed to materialize, because nobody knew who was in charge and everyone who said they would come wasn't really interested (assuming they were even in the country). The people who did want to protest didn't know about the event, because they've never used the Internet.
Via Wikipedia Commons
And we envy them.
Which brings us to ...
As you may have already suspected, publicly announcing your plans to protest an oppressive government isn't the smartest approach to a rebellion. Not only does it let the authorities know where your protest will be held and how many people will be there, it gives them access to any personal information you've put online, from your real name to which Super Mario Brothers erotic fanfiction site is your favorite.
"Stevens, get the president on the line now. He's going to flip when he reads this dude's Mario/Snape slash-fic."
We like to imagine these protests as the modern youth versus a bunch of backwards, technophobic old men -- but authoritarian governments are actually pretty damn good at using the Internet. Impoverished, downtrodden peasants? Not so much.
In Tunisia, government agents phished their way into the email and Facebook accounts of prominent protesters, then locked them out of their own profiles, collected contact information on their associates and used the information to make arrests.
They also changed the Facebook statuses of protesters to "I am super gay. For dicks."
Iranian authorities took things a step further. Not only did they use Twitter to spread false rumors (which Westerners retweeted hundreds of times -- but more on that in a moment), they used information gleaned from social networking accounts to track down and harass protesters in other countries.
Even if the authorities don't go that far, letting them know when and where your protests will be held allows them to prepare enough security to keep the demonstrations under control. Any organizing done over social networking is open to the public eye, but privacy is important when you want to stage an effective protest -- that's why the best uprisings are the ones organized by word of mouth.
The thing about Twitter is that every kernel of real information out there is floating somewhere on an ocean of bullshit. After all, every few months we get bombarded by tweets about the tragic death of a celebrity who is the last to hear about it. It's one thing for us to fall for a story about Nicolas Cage dying in some kind of buffalo stampede, but it becomes a problem when the real media starts using anonymous Twitter feeds as a substitute for reliable sources.
So, let's say there's an uprising in the Middle East. The news wants to cover the story, but you can't just walk into Syria with a video camera and start recording. Twitter to the rescue!
So, for the last year, Twitter has been praised as an innovative new way for reporters to get the facts. They go on the air and quote Tweets from the protesters themselves, without the reporter having to actually be there. The problem is, the protesters giving the updates didn't have to actually be there, either.
"Yeah, I'm in Tehran right now. Boy, is it ever protesty out here."
So when the media says that, according to someone in Tehran, 700,000 people showed up at a protest, it sounds like a huge deal. That's about 10 Superdomes. Only later did we find out the number was actually around 7,000 people, and that half of them were only there because there wasn't anything interesting on television.
"I'm not going to stop protesting until we get freedom! Or until eight o'clock, because House isn't going to watch itself!"
Not only does that kind of exaggeration give us a false impression of what's happening, it also gives us a one-sided view -- whether you like Iran's Ahmadinejad or not, the truth is that he does in fact have lots of supporters -- they just aren't using Facebook. It's like thinking that in 2004 everyone in America was unanimous in their hatred of George W. Bush just because it was trendy on the Internet to photoshop his face onto a bunch of chimpanzees. The truth was more complicated.
Even worse, all the fuss we made about Twitter being a great source of news made it less effective. Because Twitter can't distinguish between real news and made-up news, the West quickly drowned out the few pieces of accurate information with a flood of false rumors and useless messages (one third of the tweets related to the Iran protests were just repostings of other tweets), a problem compounded by the fact that it was impossible to tell who was really in Iran and who was sitting in their parent's basement in Cleveland. For some reason, nobody stopped and asked why all the Iranian protesters were tweeting in English and not Farsi, the language most people actually speak in Iran.
And all those references to violence and squalor didn't help sort things out, either.