Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Rumination: Twitter, #iranelection, The Post

This morning I picked up the paper out of the driveway. The top story on page A1 is "Police Unleash Force on Rally in Tehran." Here's how it kicks off:
TEHRAN, June 20 -- Fiery chaos broke out in downtown Tehran on Saturday as security forces blocked streets and used tear gas, water cannons and batons to break up a demonstration against the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Security forces were seen firing warning shots into the air, but there were also unconfirmed reports that several people were hit by gunfire. Police Unleash Force On Rally in Tehran

Listen, people, the world has changed. We don't have to accept this kind of "coverage" any more.

Yesterday I spent a good part of the afternoon reading Twitter. The revolution in Iran is completely unprecedented in world history, the people on the street are reporting what is happening in real time, and anyone in the world can read about it and see it.

I'll back up. Twitter is a "microblogger" application. You can set up an account at and it asks you at the top of the screen, "What are you doing?" You have 140 characters to say something, you can say, I'm nearly out of gas, or my foot itches, or I wish I was outside ... anything. You can tweet from your computer or from your cell phone, which is a big thing, people can post information from the street, literally. It is not a medium for profound monologues, you can get in one or two sentences and you're finished. Most of Twitter is absolutely uninteresting. People actually do tell you they're nearly out of gas, and their feet itch. But sometimes they have something to say. In some recent catastrophes it turned out you got immediate news -- "I see a big wave coming!" long before the commercial media picked it up. Of course you don't know what's accurate and what's not, but those things have a way of working themselves out.

So yesterday (and today, of course) you could read Twitter posts coming from the streets of Tehran. During the time I was following it closely, I'd say there were approximately 500 messages per minute, about half of them coming from the people of Iran. Try it, go to SEARCH TWITTER to read tweets about the trouble in Iran. This is a search engine that shows all the tweets with the keyword "iranelection."

So, The Post says the security forces blocked the streets and used tear gas. Well, you can see video from the streets on the Internet, you can see that the people are roaming the streets, rioting, throwing rocks and confronting the basij where they find them. On Twitter you can read accounts about, for instance, how the people chased government security goons into a building and then set fire to it. You can watch video, horrible video, of a woman named Neda dying after being shot in the heart by a government sniper while she stood on the street and watched what was going on, you can see her eyes roll back in her head, see the blood leak out of the corner of her mouth, see her family holding her, crying. It's not an "unconfirmed report," as The Post tells us, you can see the video, and further, on Twitter you can read accounts by doctors who have reviewed the video and confirm that is almost surely not faked.

Yesterday you read tweet after tweet describing the fact that the government in Tehran was dumping acid on crowds from helicopters. It's one thing if one crazy rioter says it, but when you read one account after the other, when you read instructions about what to do if acid is poured on you, explanations of what to do to cover up, links to maps showing where to go for help -- the hospitals are closed, but certain embassies provide medical assistance -- you end up knowing that this really happened, the Iranian government really is dumping acid on people in the streets. The Post doesn't mention it. A government dropping acid on crowds of its own citizens, not worthy of mention in the mighty Washington Post.

I saw a TV news guy the other day who appeared to be sitting in front of a window looking out on Tehran, and he explained that they were not allowed to show the city itself, it was just a picture of Tehran. They are simply not allowed to report the news -- this is unbelievable, really, to see that our castrated information sources going along with the wishes of the oppressive regime, reporting whatever the tyrannical Iranian leadership tells them to report.

But it doesn't matter, the Internet is growing up and information cannot be contained. The Iranian government turns off the cell-phone infrastructure and people still find a way to get calls out -- people are having their phones taken away from them and if they catch you filming a scene they might arrest you, beat you, or shoot you. YouTube has thousands of videos from the streets of Iran -- tens of thousands of them -- and our big corporate news media are afraid to let the camera point out the window at the lights of the city.

Do you think The Post mentions that helicopters are dropping acid on the citizens? No, I do not see that here. Let's say it's an unconfirmed rumor. That does not seem to make it any less of a news story, the newspaper can say "There were unconfirmed rumors that the government was dropping acid on people," but for some reason a newspaper like The Post can't say that unless they can get the government of Iran to confirm it.

I heard somebody recently use the phrase "the establishment," saying how we baby boomers were against "the establishment" when we were young, and to tell you the truth, I don't remember ever using that phrase back in the day. It was a term coined by ... the establishment ... to describe young people's perception of that good ol' boy network that is sometimes confused with reality. The establishment marketed anti-establishment attitudes and made a good living off it. Most of us just didn't care about it, which to their mind was the same as being against it. I suppose it was.

What is happening here actually truly undermines the establishment. Anybody can go into Twitter and say "The government is dumping acid on the people," and if it's not true somebody else will say "Disregard that statement, that person is not credible," and the statement will fade. I am seeing that today, there are rumors that Mousavi has been arrested, and people are tweeting "That is not correct, don't believe those rumors." (Note: it may be true that he was arrested today.) Overall the facts come out in this self-organizing system of the free evolution of knowledge.

The monolithic media like The Post give some sanitized version of events, they report on life as if it were being written in a future history book with all the blood drained out of it, they pick the good guys and tell you the story so that it will look good for them in the long run when the winners they pick have won the battle.

History in fact runs on two rails. On one hand there are the stories of the leaders, royalty and leaders and elected officials who make big decisions and then the world watches those decisions play out, maybe there is a war or a change of policy that affects the way people live. But the other rail is the people, the man on the street, who is always left out of the history books. You can say "The United States under George Bush invaded Iraq," and there will be a history-book chapter about the war and how it affected relations among Middle Eastern nations, but there is also the street-level version of the story, the people whose homes were invaded by foreign soldiers, the women and children who were raped, the people killed by capricious bullets, the pointless torture, homes without water or electricity, as well as the stories of Western families who sent their sons and daughters into battle to fight an unwinnable war against an unnamed enemy with no goal or way to measure victory.

To me, that's what matters, the lives of the people. I don't like to think in terms of a broad concept like "evil," but if there is evil it exists in the dehumanization of people, evil is the force that reduces human beings to objects. Its opposite and antidote is love. It is a constant presence in our lives, you might be jockeying for position at a grocery store cash register, you might read a news item about someone doing something incomprehensibly brutal, you might even view friends and lovers in a less-than-fully human light at times, we all do it. When you read statistics about the number of people affected by something it sucks the life out of every single case -- one close friend killed or maimed in a traffic accident is one thing, tens of thousands of people killed or maimed and you just turn the page, looking for the funnies.

The Internet has been evolving as a medium for the people as individuals. You may not appreciate blogs but the fact is that any person can create their own web page for free and put any information there that they want. If nobody reads it, well, there you go. Most blogs, I think, are not read by anybody, but there are subcultures in the blogosphere, clusters of bloggers who interact and feed off one another. There are commercial bloggers, in fact there are some big-budget blogs out there, but really anybody can do it -- Drudge was just a guy, posting news stories that caught his eye.

In Iran now we are seeing the Internet being put to work for the common person on a scale that we have never seen before. The government is doing all it can to shut it down, but it's too big and too widely distributed, they can't stop people from getting the word out. There are videos, sound recordings, Twitter notes, blog posts, emails, and the whole world is watching the Iranian government's brutal oppression of the citizenry.

Our commercial media are put to shame. The "official" reporting is pathetic. It misses the point, professional reporters are afraid to leave their hotel rooms, and when they do they are searched, arrested, deported. They have an arrangement with officialdom, with "the establishment," that they will publish stories that are acceptable to authorities with the agreement that they will be guaranteed access to the official version of stories as they emerge. These kinds of news reporters are just groupies with notepads. We think they are reporting for us, but they are reporting, first of all, for paying advertisers, and second, for the favor of those prominent people who are featured in the stories. If any information flows out to us, the reading public, it's a miracle, an anomaly, the system is not set up to allow that to happen but sometimes you can fit the pieces together and come up with some idea of what has happened.

Twitter can't be stopped. Of course most Twitter content is vacuous, but if you weed through it, for instance with a focused keyword search, you can get a very good idea about what is really going on in a situation.

The problem for you and me, of course, is that we can't read five hundred posts a minute, even when they are as dramatic as the word out of Iran has been. We need a distiller, and there you are putting yourself at the mercy of someone's judgment. So, for instance, the Huffington Post is carrying an archive of video and information from Iran, updating several times an hour, pointing out the big questions that are coming up and showing readers the more important events. Some of the video, especially, is very disturbing, lots of fire and blood and violence and weeping. But you end up with a very good feel for what's going on in the streets of that country, up to the minute. And if that site started posting a biased sample, you can be sure somebody else will be summarizing just as well or better, and the audiences will swarm there instead. The financial markets might not regulate themselves well, but the Internet is excellent at it There is a famous saying from the earliest days of the Internet: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." We are seeing the truth of that statement today. (One fascinating phenomenon, Iranian agents are on Twitter, too, posting misinformation, and other users are tweeting their names and telling people to block them.)

The corporate media do not route around censorship, they call it "editing" and it is a feature, not a bug, in the commercial news presentation app. To get back to the Washington Post, they have fired their best guy because he was critical of the way they covered the news. The kid in the bleachers might shout out that the emperor has no clothes, but he is not likely to land a job in the royal court making announcements, you might say. The Post wants to lick the hand that feeds it, they want to become an official mouthpiece for authorities, okay, they can do that. In a world where newspapers are going out of business left and right, you can see where this leads. Who's going to read The Post? In the end, only the people who the stories are about. The rest of us are going to get our information from the street, unfiltered.

Oh, and hey, Happy Father's Day.


Blogger Tish said...

The Washington Post lost its heart - and its balls - when Katherine Graham died. The change in its editorial policies was apparent within a few weeks and it has been down hill from there. I am amazed that there are people who call it a liberal paper.

There are good reasons why print journalism is dying. One of them is that papers like the Post are pretending they are Louis XVI, who walled himself up Versailles and maintained court protocol while Paris erupted and his nobles fled the country. On-going reporting on what is actually happening is erupting everywhere and the Post fires reporters, shrinks text size and runs features about the First Lady's wardrobe.

June 21, 2009 9:49 PM  
Blogger andy said...

If you use Internet Explorer you may want to try TweetIE, the twitter add-on for IE and Firefox that helps you post quotes from the websites you visit to your twitter account. It is very useful if you want to share news on twitter with your followers.

June 22, 2009 2:44 AM  
Blogger David S. Fishback said...

CNN seems to be basing their entire coverage on Twitter, etc.

June 22, 2009 7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim makes a lot of good points here but goes too far in attacking the Post.

It's not perfect and never has been but it's an important part of being informed here. Just don't make it your only source of information.

Only someone who hasn't travelled around the country and seen the papers in other cities would fail to appreciate it.

June 22, 2009 8:00 AM  

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