This week, in the wake of the election in Iran, Iranian citizens took to the streets in protest for an election that they say is marred by fraud. The Twitterverse, in response, has taken up the mantle of protest. This is not a new phenomenon; the collective voice of Twitter users has taken this step on other issues before. This seems different, however. Its collective voice is very active against the victory of Ahmadinejad. Their nearly universal support makes their potential error so much more damning.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, has come out saying that the margin of victory is so great (11 million votes in a country with slightly more than 70 million people) that mere voter fraud could not have swung the election. He has also encouraged candidates who have claims of irregularity to pursue the countries legal avenues to have their claims heard in court. No one knows how that is going to turn out, but I am inclined to agree on face value. That is a very dangerous statement to make. There is a long standing tradition of leaders, who don’t want to lose power winning near unanimous victories. It is entirely possible that Iran has responded to the massive global criticism of these fraudulent elections by only manipulating the election enough to provide the appearance of a strong victory.
That being said, what does it say for the Twitterverse’s vocal statement of this alleged fraud? Users are encouraged to overlay their icons with green to show support for the protestors claiming the election was stolen from them. Reading through the #iranelection this morning, you see comments suggesting that Tehran is going to melt down into a repeat of the massacre in Tianamen Square (which, itself is a retweet of a sentiment by Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times, June 16th 2009 ). There are statements saying that the mood of the entire country is heartbroken. There are reports of political activists being arrested. There are reports that either five or sixteen Revolutionary Guard commanders have refused to protect the capital, and were arrested. There are claims of counterintelligence being disseminated through Twitter to confuse the supporters and claims that it wasn’t the central government that rigged the election, but a coordinated effort on the part of the polling stations.
This is the danger of the crowd mentality. All of us look at these claims, and believe they are plausible. Many of us look at them and assume that they are likely. But none of us – none of us – know that they are true. The leap from plausibility to fact is a short one, and the leap from likely to fact is even shorter. I clicked through 15 pages of tweets containing the term Revolutionary Guard that have been posted in the last 10 minutes, and none of them contain a news article. Right now, no one knows what is really happening; it is all a gigantic game of ‘Telephone’. Everyone is retweeting the same lack of information to everyone else.
If this election turns out to be legit, what happens to Twitter then? Does it lose the credibility to report keenly on the state of the world that it has gained because of previous issues? What about all the followers watching every post on #iranelection? What happens when they learn that they were mislead, or at least didn’t approach the argument by looking for independent facts? I think that the latest tweet – itself a retweet – says it best. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” (Joseph Goebbels). Twitter is full of believers right now- There are 495 posts on #iranelection since I started writing this essay. I don’t know what to believe any more. The facts are getting lost in the noise.