The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted Because Only 0.027% of Iranians Are on Twitter

Remember the storyline about a new Iranian revolution after the elections this summer? The one fuelled by the internet generation? The one that got the state department to intervene to help Iranians Twitter? Not so much.

British writer and analyst Charles Leadbeater, and researcher Annika Wong, have put together a report called Cloud Culture to be published by the British Council next year. Their statistical study, provided to me by Leadbeater, is based on figures from the social media analytics company Sysomos. It shows that such a tiny proportion of Iranians are on Twitter that any stories about a new movement based on the social network are meaningless. The figure they provide, by they way, includes the thousands of foreigners who changed their Twitter location to Tehran when the 'Iranian internet revolution' story struck after the elections in June and Facebook and Twitter were afire with Iran sentiment. So the likely figure is even lower.

The report adds that only one third of Iranians have internet access at all. And because opposition supporters are young, and on the internet, and Ahmadinejad supporters tend to be older and rural, the picture on the ground is likely skewed by any analysis that relies on tweets.

Leadbeater and Wong also compile a series of hyperbolic quotes from a variety of media sources at the time of the protests:

  • "Twitter has become a key information conduit as the authorities in Tehran have cracked down on reporting by traditional media." Chris Nuttall and Daniel Dombey, Financial Times.
  • "After disputed election results and massive street demonstrations in Tehran, Iran, information is flooding out of the country – on Twitter." Ashley Terry, Global News.
  • "This is it. The big one." Clay Shirky of NYU.
  • "We've been struck by the amount of video and eyewitness testimony... The days when regimes can control the flow of information are over." Jon Williams, BBC World News editor.

The meme was just too tempting, it seems, for anyone to dig into its veracity. The media — this site included — loves to write about Twitter, and loved doing so even more in summer when it was even newer and shiner. The storyline also fit the fact that Iran is a young country, and chimed with the heartbreaking YouTube video of the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan.

The solidarity that thousands, even millions of Americans showed with the people of Iran during June's elections and the subsequent protests was admirable. It was also potentially dangerous. I was at the UN protests against President Ahmadinejad earlier this fall. Several young men were wearing dust masks they had purchased from hardware stores. I asked one why. "I am wearing it because I have to go back to Iran," said a softly-spoken and shy 28-year-old student who gave his name only as Mohammed. "I return next year and this is for safety, in case they are watching," he added, pointing to his mask. "It could be the best $3 I ever spend."

If Mohammed is picked up despite his dust mask, the fact that the protests in Tehran were partly fomented by Western support based on a false story about Twitter will be of no consolation. It's probably not much comfort to these people either.