The emergence of Twitter as a heroic enabling technology for the pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran this past week has been a thrilling reminder of the power of distributed communication tools. I’m impressed at how useful this simple application has been shown to be, and at the clever hacks the Iran-based commentators have employed to stay online. As so many tech pundits have said, this has been a golden moment for social networking technologies.
And, I have to admit, it’s scared the hell out of me.
Not because I have any sympathy for Iran’s government, I should hasten to say, or because I see any threat coming from this particular use of Twitter. It scares me because of how close it aligns with something I noted in my talk at Mobile Monday in Amsterdam earlier this month, an observation that happened almost by accident.
In noting the potential power of social networking tools for organizing mass change, I thought out loud for a moment about what kinds of dangers might emerge. It struck me, as I spoke, that there is a terrible analogy that might be applicable: the use of radio as a way of coordinating bloody attacks on rival ethnic communities during the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s. I asked, out loud, whether Twitter could ever be used to trigger a genocide. The audience was understandably stunned by the question, and after a few seconds someone shouted, “No!” I could only hope that the anonymous reply was right, but I don’t think he was.
Consider, for a moment, what we’re seeing happening in Iran: mass-action coordinated, at least in part, through Twitter; traditional media in Iran having lost any legitimacy for the angry populace, alternative media–like Twitter–increasingly becoming the sole source of information; and a growing sense of persecution and crisis, abetted by the limited streams of rumor-heavy news. Let me again emphasize that I don’t think that what’s happening in Iran is a misuse of social media; what I do think is that the same kinds of dynamics that have allowed for a potential democratic revolution in Iran could emerge just as readily in support of something far darker.
In a 1999 presentation for the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Professor Frank Chalk noted five circumstances that would allow the maximum intensity of a media-driven response to a crisis:
- the introduction of a new medium of communication, such as radio [or Twitter];
- the use of a completely new style of communication;
- the wide-spread perception that a crisis exists;
- a public with little knowledge of the situation from other sources of information, and
- a deep-seated habit of obeying authority among the target audience.
All of these circumstances pertain to the promulgation of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and many of them are found in other cases of genocide and genocidal killings, as well.
It’s easy to see how well this model applies to the Iranian situation, too.
This shouldn’t be read as an indictment of social networking technologies in general, or of Twitter in particular. As I said at the outset, I’m thrilled at how critical this technology has been to the viability and potential success of the pro-democracy demonstrations. As the cat-and-mouse game around proxy servers further suggests, the only way for a state to entirely cut off the use of these kinds of tools is to kill its own information networks, blinding itself and effectively removing itself from the global economy.
What I’m arguing, however, is that we shouldn’t see the positive political successes of emerging social tools as being the sole model. We should be aware that, as these tools proliferate, they will inevitably be used for far more deadly goals.
At the end of my brief exploration on this idea at Mobile Monday, I asked–in a bit of gallows humor–what the hashtag would be for something like genocide. The audience’s nervous laughter reflected my own recognition that this wasn’t an entirely rhetorical question. I’m sad to say that we’re almost certain to get an answer, probably far sooner than we’d like.