Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Twits for Peace

Something from last weekend. An opinion piece, written by a former US national security advisor, in the normally lucid and admirable Christian Science Monitor that calls for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, really. Iran is the main reason cited, given the widespread use of Twitter by pro-democracy activists in the post-election protests. The CSM even gets a bit emotive on it, indulging in foamy rhetoric last seen in Stanley Kramer's heyday:

Without Twitter, the world might have known little more than a losing candidate accusing the powers that be of alleged fraud. Without Twitter, the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy. They did so because they knew the world was watching. With Twitter, they now shout hope with a passion and dedication that resonates not just with those on their street, but with millions across the globe.

My word, what utter nonsense. Those that know me know I'm not behind the door when it comes to tweeting and I have no intention of joining the chorus of jobbing journos who see imminent social decay in people's micro-blogging. But let's keep things in perspective. Twitter was a useful tool for Iranian protestors to disseminate images to the world, not least images of the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, though it is questionable how useful it was for organising protests given that Iran had a relatively small number of Twitter users and given how easily traceable users are on it. And there is of course the fact that many decoy feeds were set up by Iranian authorities. Evgeny Morozov is a great deal more sensible about this and internet activism and security are his domain, knowing a thing or two about repressive regimes (he's of Belarussian nationality). He cautions against a 'cyber-utopianism' which imagines that web applications such as Twitter can be used to bring down authoritarian regimes.

Iran's protests would have happened without Twitter; to suggest otherwise is to insult both the bravery and the sophistication of those that organised and participated in them. It's an absurdly solipsistic view of westerners to imagine that the mass protest against a thirty-year-old theocracy might be suddenly given fresh impetus by a tool that most of us use for diversion. If Twitter should get the Nobel peace prize, why not give it to the printing press, the telephone, the human voice? Has the world really run out of humans striving for peace and justice that we must reward a web application conceived with little other than instant messaging in mind?

There is also a disturbing vertically-integrated culture of heroes and villains in this 'Twitter revolution theory', it's all plucky secular Iranians against the Mullahs, plucky little Georgia against the big bad Russian bear, the plucky Venezuelan bourgeoisie against Hugo Chávez. And Morozov is guilty of this himself, in his analysis of the 'Moldovan Twitter revolution'. Moldova, earlier this year, was the first instance of Twitter being used to organise and publicise protests. But what few people mention is the fact that the protests were against an election victory in polls judged free and fair by observers. While I can understand the frustration of Moldovan youth who bristle at living under a democratically-elected communist government (I have liked few of the governments I myself have lived under) the moral force of the protests was not persuasive. And, among people in the west, there's a rather strange assumption that people who use Twitter for political ends must be on the side of the angels. A quick look at a few Twitter feeds will convince otherwise. A little bit of perspective on Twitter would be welcome. It's safe to say that many authoritarian regimes and protests against them will long outlast micro-blogging as we know it.