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(photo credit: Courtesy )
Twitter's role in the recent Iranian protests has been exaggerated, but new media were crucial in enabling an online community within and beyond Iran to convey information to protesters otherwise shut off from independent news sources, according to new media experts.
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in Iran's controversial presidential election, supporters of rival Mir Hossein Mousavi organized their opposition using many online tools that helped coordinate rallies and provide coverage about the events in their country and the response around the world, noted members of a panel on Tuesday. The panel was hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Center for International Media Assistance.
As the government cracked down on this online activity, the international press focused on the use of Twitter, which was harder to block due to its decentralized framework.
"I think the Twitter story has been greatly exaggerated," said Robert Faris, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
He and Setareh Derakhshesh of Voice of America's Persian News Network pointed out that Twitter's coverage was limited by its brevity, lack of detail and the ease with which it could be manipulated to spread wrong information. Twitter, they argued, was just one of many modes of communication used following the election.
Though Twitter has received a tremendous amount of attention for its role in the protest movement, the significance of the flow of information from the West into Iran via the Internet and satellite TV have been largely overlooked, according to the panel.
"This communication and use of the new media has not been a one-way thing," said Huffington Post blogger Sam Sedaei. "There have been a lot of people on this side who have also sent a lot of information back in [to Iran]."
New media being used include blogs, Facebook - where Mousavi has a page with over 110,000 followers - Twitter and Citizentube, a YouTube channel where users upload their own coverage of news.
While Iranians share what they see with the world, the news programs being sent back in to Iran from Westerners have been the only way for Iranians to obtain unbiased, non-government-controlled coverage of their own nation's news.
Derakhshesh, an anchor on one such network, described her show's role in becoming part of the new media landscape.
"We were not only providers of news, but we were also receivers of news," said Derakhshesh, whose show received hundreds of user-submitted videos every day in the election's aftermath. To continue connecting to its audience in Iran, the network set up special satellite frequencies and protected Internet pathways to avoid government censorship.
"There's a new form of the media that is a bit in contradiction with the traditional media," she said, explaining that it was now more challenging "to make sure to relay the story, but not to be part of the story."
"[Social media] is a very powerful tool, as seen in instances when traditional media is tightly controlled," said Faris.
While social networking sites help organize followers, coordinate events and raise money, it is still unclear whether they have the power to gain new supporters for a cause, Faris said.
Sedaei described the events following the election as primarily "a PR struggle" between Mousavi supporters and Ahmadinejad's government. While the Iranian regime could once rely on its control of traditional media to win such a struggle, from this point on, it has to contend with the powerful force of interactive online media.