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(photo credit: Bloomberg)
If you hadn't heard of Twitter before, you've certainly become aware of its existence - and its impact - over the past several weeks, as what appears to be the second Iranian Revolution has gained steam. While the Iranians have been doing their usual thorough job of keeping the news from getting out, Twitter users have been sending out updates about the situation on the ground when communications - Internet or cellphone - are working (the authorities have been apparently taking them down at random times).
Facebook and Youtube have been playing an important role in this too, with the former hosting longer manifestos and idea exchanges, and the latter hosting grainy film of protests and police attacks captured on cellphone cameras. But for "front line" news bulletins, Twitter has emerged as the preferred mode of clandestine communication.
The "Twitter Revolution," as some are calling it, is apparently giving the Iranian government conniptions, to the extent that the US State Department supposedly asked the Twitter people to postpone scheduled maintenance that would have shut down the service during the elections - the better to enable Iranians to communicate news abroad.
As events have developed, many members of the "chattering classes" have commented on the emergence of social-network applications as agents of social change, etc., to the extent that the concept has turned into a media cliche almost overnight!
Note that Twitter has played a role in several social upheavals already: It helped get a college kid out of jail in Egypt (http://tinyurl.com/454ha8) last year, and students in Moldova used it to organize antigovernment protests earlier this year (http://tinyurl.com/dheplv).
But the Twitter Revolution in Iran was the first one to be recognized in a big way - possibly because many mainstream journalists have started using Twitter themselves only recently!
On the other hand, Twitter can also be used for "evil": to disseminate disinformation, for example, like a Twitterer called Bamos did (http://tinyurl.com/d6vcsj), when he got conservatives up in arms about phony spending proposals in the US Federal Budget.
Bottom line: Twitter is a tool, like e-mail or the telephone. There are lots of ways to communicate and Twitter is one more. What's "revolutionary" about social media's role in the Iranian uprising is that the authorities have been unable to shut it down completely, as they have other methods of communication, and that Iranians and Westerners have developed numerous methods to beat the Internet suppression (http://tinyurl.com/lqflep). But chances are that if the phones worked, protesters would use that tool instead. I certainly would.
Never one to chatter, I won't bore you with media cliches; you can see for yourself just how important Twitter has been in Iran by surfing to the Twitter search site (http://search.twitter.com/) and typing in "Iran."
But there are a few other things I take away from the Twitter Revolution, specifically relevant to us here in Israel:
Anti-Israel blogging crowd
1) The Internet doesn't (always) hate us: Somehow, when there's a problem anywhere in the Mideast, it's at least partially the Jews'/Israel's fault. Israel is to blame for Iraq, Lebanon and other trouble spots, according to most of the region's residents, the "voices of balance" in the blogosphere and even the mainstream media. Indeed, as things heated up in Teheran last week, the government "discovered" an Election Day plot to bomb crowded sites in the city (http://tinyurl.com/lpousa), organized by you-know-who.
In fact, some in the anti-Israel blogging crowd (some of whom I wrote about at http://tinyurl.com/lhl6ur) have blamed the whole Twitter Revolution thing on us as well; it's an attempt on Israel's part to destabilize Iran, and when things are destabilized enough, we will attack them. According to this theory, somehow three or four Israelis are disseminating all the Iran uprising tweets, thus causing gullible Iranians to resist Ahmadinejad. It's very complicated!
Needless to say, ridiculous conspiracy theories like these are being totally ignored by Twitter users - and even by the blogosphere, for the most part. That Iranians are able to tweet out what's going on as it happens makes it clear that this is an organic uprising - and that Israel, while it may or may not be happy about what's going on, has nothing to do with it. It's a nice change of pace, not being "responsible" for a Middle East mess!
Israel's liberal policies
2) Israel isn't all that bad, even for Palestinians: As I mentioned earlier, the reason Iranians are being forced to rely on Twitter and other social media to get the word out is because the "traditional" methods of communication - international phone service, worldwide media reporting - have been cut off by the authorities. Would Iranians choose to use these services if the traditional alternatives were available? There's no way to know, of course, but Iranians - and the rest of us - are fortunate that we live in a time when alternatives are available.
However, note that the Palestinians, whose "struggle" has gotten far more publicity than the Iranians', are not big social-media users (until a month ago, the common wisdom said that Iranians were on board with the mullah system and were big Ahmenijadad fans; clearly this uprising didn't come out of nowhere).
There's plenty of Internet in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, and PA residents are just as big cellphone fanatics as Israelis. Yet Hamas and Fatah haven't resorted to "underground" reports from the field to get the news out. That's because they don't have to! For a speck on the map, geographically and numerically, Israel and the Palestinians get far more media coverage than they should. Palestinians don't use alternative communications tools to promote their "uprisings"; the traditional methods work just fine, thanks to Israel's liberal policies.
Israel the democracy
3) The Middle East "blog balance" has changed once again: One reason the anti-Israel Internet crowd is trying to delegitimize the Iranian uprising is because of the impact it will have on US policy in the Mideast. While President Obama hasn't taken sides on the election yet, he has demanded that the Iranian government stop beating up its citizens (each subsequent statement that he has made has been stronger than the previous one). So it would appear that the US will have no choice but to back away from the "dialogue" it had been planning with the Ahmenijadad regime, at least temporarily - and maybe permanently, if Ahmenijadad loses his job.
You have to imagine that Obama is doing some thinking about his whole Middle East stance - and that maybe there is something to the idea that democracy does make a difference. Israel isn't perfect, but it's a whole lot more democratic than Iran, Egypt, Syria and the other dictatorships, kingdoms and sheikhdoms in the neighborhood.
Obama was supposed to be different, the anti-Israel bloggers believed; he was finally, after all these years, going to "stick it" to Israel. But reality has apparently bitten, and now the rest of the world might take what Israel says about Iran - and maybe even other issues - a little more seriously. It's a blow to the anti-Israel forces on the Internet - and it's all thanks to social media, especially Twitter.