6/20/2009

Twitter, #iranelection and the pitfalls of Groupthink

By mediagonebad

While I wholeheartedly support genuine movements for freedom and democracy anywhere in the world, I find it interesting that so many Americans have jumped on the #iranelection bandwagon without taking the time to learn about Iran, its culture, its mullahs (supreme leaders), its wars, and its history with the United States.

Groupthink is a decision-making process that occurs when an idea is put forth and becomes publicly accepted without proof. Groupthink is like an intellectual snowball effect carried from person to person with little, if any, firsthand knowledge or scientific scrutiny. The effect of Groupthink is that it makes the quest for historical truth that much harder when people already accept a given idea as the truth. Ordinarily, one would gather information from first-hand sources, then form an opinion and subject it to examination and reexamination. Groupthink forgoes this process and leads directly to an opinion.

Fact: There has been no vote recount in Iran and the winner of the election is still in dispute. This is really all we can be certain about right now, so I cannot make a valid determination about what is happening in Iran in regard to the election results; rather, this is a quick-and-dirty examination of the process through which unconfirmed information received worldwide attention and force-fed public opinion.

There is some suspicion -- although this idea does not get through in the massive tweets -- that the George W. Bush’s CIA had a hand in supporting Mousavi, who now claims election fraud and victory over Ahmadinejad, even though no proof has been offered that either candidate won the election. The Supreme leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, the mullah who has the real power in Iran, quickly declared Ahmadinejad the winner, then Mousavi supporters claimed the election was rigged and demanded a new election. State forces, controlled by Khamenei, then attacked a group of Mousavi supporters and #iranelection became the top trending topic on Twitter.

Twitter, a real-time microblogging site where users publish 140-character tweets that can be read anywhere in the world where someone has an internet connection, including on cell phones, can spread information rapidly. Users can attach links and photos and state a brief opinion. The hashtag #iranelection takes the Twitter users to a page where all of the tweets using that hashtag can be found. I left the page untouched and unrefreshed for just a few minutes and had a backlog of more that 1,000 tweets. It would be impossible for one person to keep up with this amount of information, but it gives you an idea how rapidly information -- true or not -- can be disseminated via Twitter, as well as Facebook and YouTube.

Youtube videos from Iran are often uploaded from cell phone cameras. The videos show various scenes, usually with some kind of action or violence. Sometimes there is Farsi being spoken in the background, but many have no commentary, so the viewer is left to decide what the scene depicts without actually having been there to witness it. Comments are then made about about the video and some people post links to the video on Twitter and Facebook. Once there, the videos receive additional commentary, then are reposted and retweeted countless times. Some are even broadcast via CNN, although, to CNN’s credit, they do say that the information is unconfirmed. Citizen journalism is a powerful tool, but the content must still be judged critically and confirmed.

According to Time Magazine (June 29, 2009), “it is impossible for an outsider, in Iran for 10 days, to sift through the governmental opacity, the contradictory demonstrations, and predict what comes next.” Yet, by reading a few Tweets and turning our icons green, we jump on the Groupthink bandwagon in cheering for Mousavi and “freedom.” But, when pressed, no one seems to know of any reforms Mousavi has advocated. No one seems to know what kind of president he would be or how he would treat his opposition. While Mousavi was Prime Minister, thousands of political prisoners were executed and hundreds of striking workers were jailed or beaten. Has he changed? Will he continue to assert Iran’s right to build a nuclear power reactor in spite of warnings from the United States and Israel? Will he assume more state power now in the hands of the religious mullahs? No one has these answers, but one thing is certain in the wake of the violence: the mullahs will go to great lengths to preserve their power.