Why Iran?

More than 20,000 people marched in the streets, blocking roads, waving flags, decrying the corruption that has pushed another quarter million from their homes, with rumors swirling about genocide.

We’re talking, of course, about the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka.

Tamil? Sri Lanka? Not even on your radar? That’s OK — most Americans don’t follow international politics at all. So you have to wonder why one international tragedy causes nary a ripple in the United States while another, the current Iranian election angst, has affluent Americans turning their Twitter headshots green in solidarity. This statement doesn’t make light of either dispute but simply notes that some messages go wild while others wallow in the back pages of dry newspapers.

Iran is a case study in why some topics go viral

The Iranian elections caught CNN by surprise a week ago when Twitter lit up with complaints the news network was not covering the riots. To be fair to CNN, most Americans usually don’t give a hoot about international politics. Between 60,000 and 100,000 civilians were killed in the Darfur genocide, yet few in the U.S. can name the continent Darfur resides upon.

By comparison, over the past seven days discussions of Iran have escalated in social media; by Saturday, June 20, “Iran” was included in 3 percent of all tweets. The controversy has struck a chord, perhaps because Americans are fresh off an emotional election and are projecting their Obama passions (he’s a savior / he is destroying democracy) onto a very foreign election. Perhaps the thought of anyone gaming an election irritates us, when our own country just had such fervent debates about our next leader (a fresh hope / friend of terrorists). Perhaps U.S. social media users were secretly flattered at the thought of their favorite new tool, Twitter, being used to circumvent draconian censorship (although The New York Times reports Twitter use in Iran was marginal compared to other, less sexy technology such as text messaging).

It’s all a case study in the Gladwell Tipping Point power of context — for any message to go viral, not only must it be resonate and reach network influencers, but the network itself has to be primed and ready. Humans propagate messages best when their communication ecosystem is staged, like dry grass waiting for the spark that causes wildfire.

Our thoughts go out to those struggling to find truth in Iran. The answers are neither simple nor easy. It’s very interesting, though, to find out suddenly that Americans care. For some reason, unlike CNN, our networks were ready.

Photo: From the Flickr collection of Faramarz Hashemi, who is sharing graphic images of the current conflict in Iran.

4 thoughts on “Why Iran?

  1. In agreement with your points- will offer up a few others:

    1. Americans are familiar with Iran since the Hostage Crisis of 79== “ayatollah” is a familiar phrase to most Americans and is often used outside of religious context, e.g. “acting like he’s the ayatollah of the NFL” — and because Ahmenidjad manages to get his name in the news all the time.

    2. The current situation is being framed as a battle between good and evil and is just easy for many to wrap their heads around. I wonder how many of those with green Twitter icons could find Iran on a map, know that Shiraz is not just a type of wine, and (most importantly) get that Mossavi is not an Iranian Gorbachev or Adenauer, but rather is, as Thomas Friedman put it this morning “light black” – a member of the ruling elite who is in no way, shape or form advocating the dismantling of the Islamic Republic. Reminds me of the people who were staging sit-ins for divestment back in college but who didn’t know what a Boer was.

    3. We have a tendency in the West to focus our interest quite selectively. A monsoon hits Bangladesh, 10,000 people are swept out to sea and it winds up on page 21 of the NY Times, a sub-heading on CNN.com. Were 10,000 Dutch swept out to sea, you can be sure we’d have 24/7 coverage on every major network for at least a month. Not to mention several all-proceed-go-to-charity recordings from a pack of music stars and of course the requisite teeth-gnashing from the Twitterati.

    All that said, it is pretty amazing how much of a role citizen journalists and citizen journalism are playing in the protests. The portability of Twitter’s technology– and the role that plays in Iranians being able to circumvent attempts to block their messaging– is far more interesting than the fact that they’re using Twitter.

  2. I find it hard to contribute to all these points. Both the post and the comment are great. However, I will add one thing: For all the hype of “twitter saving the day,” the Tamil case highlights that without access to the tools you still remain invisible.

    So in spite of the lauding of the “social Internet as a news source,” I believe these the currents situations show that it is a poor replacement for traditional news gathering. It’s only one of many tool that enhances the entire picture of news.

  3. A great post and comments. Just to pick up on a few things

    1 – For sure, this is not the ‘Twitter revolution!’. I’ve read that there are 8000 Tweeple in Iran and to be honest I was surprised it was even that high. I assumed it was in the hundreds.

    Having said that, Twitter has without a doubt outflanked the mainstream news on providing information, especially on the 1st day post when the results were announced.

    I easily learned more in an hour from Twitter and people on the ground than from the MSM in a day, so from that point of view I do believe Iran was Twitter’s moment in showing people that it’s not just geeks and ego maniacs talking cr*p all day! (http://bit.ly/beu2i)

    2 – Why is Iran getting so much attention? There is the David vs Goliath perception that Alan has already picked up on.

    But – and this is not to slight the millions of people in the US whose support for the protests is clearly heart felt – it’s become an internal US political issue.

    Thanks to the largesse of Rupert Murdoch we can view Fox News via the (Murdoch owned) Sky satellite system here in the UK, and just a short viewing of it yesterday showed that (as you guys will know already) that it has become a stick for right wingers to beat the Obama administration around the head with.

    In that sense, it’s not about the Iranians any more, it’s about internal US politics with the Moussavi protesters being by standers in that sense.

    On one hand we have the right attacking the President for not supporting ‘freedom.’ And on the other hand we have Obama supporters saying the green revolution is of course all down to that excellent speech he gave in Cairo!

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