Twitter and Iran: First Get the Data, Then Talk

I just attended a panel at Harvard University on “The Impact of Social Media in the Middle East” which is part of a 3-day conference on the Middle East and North Africa. My colleagues Rob Faris from the Berkman Center and Evgeny Morozov now at Georgetown were both on the panel in addition to Iranian-American activist Lily Mazahery and Kuwaiti blogger Ziad Al-Duaij.

The panelists engaged in rapid-fire debate on the role of Twitter in Iran after their presentations. The typical laundry list of anecdotes were thrown around to win the hearts and minds of the audience.  The summary: Yes, Twitter had a significant impact; No Twitter had no significant impact.

Maybe it’s because I hadn’t eaten all day, but I found this all quite annoying. This is precisely the kind of anecdotal acrobatics that prompted me—two years ago—to pursue a dissertation on The Role of New Media and Technology in Popular Resistance Against Repressive Rule.

If you look close enough, you’ll find that many of the debates in the “field” of digital activism are based on strings of anecdotes. The preponderance of these would have us believe that new media and digital technology spell certain democracy. Yet an increasing number of anecdotes reveal (surprise, surprise) that repressive regimes are making use of new media and technology to forward their own agendas.

So where exactly does this leave us?

In anecdotal heaven or data scarcity hell, depending on your own agenda. I chose to pursue a dissertation in this area because I want to get beyond anecdotal ping pong. Yes, we have more and more anecdotes. And that’s great. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Are we starting to see a trend emerge? Who is winning this digital—albeit dangerous—game of cat-and-mouse?

I don’t mind being in anecdotal heaven since I realize that hard data is rather hard to come by. But I wish the panelists had been upfront and just said: “Right, given the general lack of quantitative data and rigorous qualitative case study analysis, we have to resort anecdotes, so bear with us as we warm up for our anecdotal ping pong tournament.”

Don’t get me wrong, all the panelists have a wealth of experience and insights to draw on that I simply don’t have. So all I can do is emphasize the need for more data collection and a mixed methods approach to answer the question on everyone’s mind:

Does access to new media and digital technology
change the balance of power

between repressive regimes and resistance movements?

This is what I’m trying to get at with my dissertation. Of course, the answer will be: “It depends”. But at least I’ll be able to draw on data and comparative case study analysis to make an informed judgment on what “it” depends on. How do I plan to get there? See this blog post for the quantitative model and this blog post where I propose an analytical qualitative framework to understand the impact of new media and technology on repressive rule and civil resistance.

But I do not claim that my research design is perfect, which is why I’d be grateful for any feedback iRevolution readers may have.

Patrick Philippe Meier

16 responses to “Twitter and Iran: First Get the Data, Then Talk

  1. Good point. Yesterday, too, I listened to a presentation on Twitter and Iran, based on bits and pieces of the anecdotal evidence that is out there. Even out of the stories, it seems that a more comprehensive narrative can be made.

    But with Iran, why don’t we have better data? Can we not pull in information on how many protesters were using online social networks, how many of Tweets relating to the protests were new information vs. RTs, etc? It strikes me that as Twitter continues to grow as a communication tool, social science needs to figure out ways to extract and analyze data.

    Finally, to me it seems beside the point to argue that either “new media and digital technology spell certain democracy” or the opposite. I think a more appropriate question is IF nonviolent resistance movements are using these tools, HOW can they be used safely to challenge authoritarian regimes? But perhaps that question exposes my own bias.

    Thanks as always, Patrick, for the enlightening conversation!

    • Hi Em, I agree with your more appropriate question, hence the second part of my dissertation research focusing on tactics and strategies. In terms of better data and statistics, agreed, that’s part of the reason behind Swift River.

      Thanks for thoughts as always!

  2. Hi Patrick,

    It was indeed a ping pong battle! (I’m surprised we haven’t met officially yet, by the way).

    Here’s my question, and it’s a simple one: In your analysis, to what degree are you taking into account actual location of participants (in any situation, but particularly Iran) and if so, how are you even determining such information? Does it matter?

    One of the things I found most frustrating about the panel, and Lily’s talk in particular, was the implication that any of this Twitter discourse actually matters when it’s just westerners doing the talking. I’m not saying that’s the case – I don’t actually know – but for example, if you look at the Twitter activity during Israel’s attacks on Gaza in January 2009, it was heavy – #Gaza was a trending topic for weeks (as were other related tags), but the vast majority of the activity was coming from activists and “slacktivists” in the west. I could surmise that it had little influence on any Palestinians, for example.

    Thoughts?

    • Thanks for your comments, Jillian, you’re right, we need to meet up soon!

      In my dissertation analysis–particularly the large-N quantitative analysis party–my data is in country-years. And that’s been a pain and the half to find. So I’m caught in this country-year straightjacket because there are no large-N datasets that have a higher (consistent) spatial resolution that I know of. The second part of my dissertation may be able to draw on more location based data depending on how much information I can get from semi-structured surveys.

      In terms of my work with Ushahidi–particularly crisis mapping–I’m hoping that crowdsourced data can provide a small part of the answer to how much location matters. In my opinion, it’s going to be a combination of social networks and geography. Would be fun to design an agent-based model around that.

      I think you make a very good point on the Gaza case.

      Cheers,
      Patrick

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  4. Dear Patrick,
    Food for Thought: The Iranian Goverment just set up a special Unit of the police to follow “Internet crime”, see the BBC-article at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8361022.stm
    I completley agree that straight scientific work is needed to have a full view of the problem. Your dissertation will be most welcomed . On the other hand it is interesting to notice that the Iranian goverment is reacting…even we do not have the complete numbers at the moment.
    Sincerley Yours
    Martin

  5. “Many of the debates in the ‘field’ of digital activism are based on strings of anecdotes” http://www.twitter.com/erykmistewicz
    Txs!

  6. Patrick – right on the money. The bias towards anecdote is one of the most problematic features of current discussions around technology. As you say, there’s nothing wrong with anecdotes per se – but they’re mainly used as rhetoric rather than as evidence.

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