For some strange reason, the American media has always been obsessed with Twitter and Facebook. The movie “The Social Network,” which is about the founding of Facebook, received far more media commentary than any other movie in 2010, despite being only the 28th highest U.S.-grossing film that year.
This applies to foreign affairs as well. In the context of the events occurring in the Middle East, the Western media loves to argue that Twitter and Facebook constitute catalysts for revolution in the modern era. Indeed, some articles called the 2009 Iranian protests the “Twitter Revolution.” One excited journalist at the time wrote:
Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.
On Twitter, reports and links to photos from a peaceful mass march through Tehran on Monday, along with accounts of street fighting and casualties around the country, have become the most popular topic on the service worldwide, according to Twitter’s published statistics.
The trouble with all this is that in June 2009, the entire country of Iran only had 19,235 Twitter users, according to statistics assembled by Sysomos. This is about half the number of people who attend a professional football game. To be fair, the figure is probably not exact; the true number could be higher (due to Iranians not reporting being from Iran) or lower (due to foreigners setting their residence to Iran to protect native Iranian Twitter users).
But it certainly is not enough to make a “Twitter Revolution.” Foreign Policy analyst Golnaz Esfandiari probably provides a more accurate analysis of Twitter’s role in Iran:
Twitter was definitely not a major communications tool for activists on the ground in Iran.
Nonetheless, the “Twitter Revolution” was an irresistible meme during the post-election protests, a story that wrote itself. Various analysts were eager to chime in about the purported role of Twitter in the Green Movement. Some were politics experts, like the Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan and Marc Ambinder. Others were experts on new media, like Sascha Segan of PC Magazine. Western journalists who couldn’t reach — or didn’t bother reaching? — people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets posted with tag #iranelection. Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.
The recent revolutions in the Arab world also, in all likelihood, have very little to do with either Twitter or Facebook, whatever the Western media might say. Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have a combined total of 14,642 Twitter users. That is a tiny, tiny number. There are more people in a major public university than Twitter users in these three countries combined.
Facebook is relatively more widely used throughout the world; its penetration in Egypt was 4.58% as of July 2010. This is better than Twitter, but the usage pales in comparison to – say – the percent of the population that watches Al Jazeera. Fortunately, given the nationwide Internet shutdown in Egypt, journalists are not talking about a “Facebook Revolution” in Egypt.
But the articles about Facebook or Twitter supposedly inciting revolution continue. One recent Times article argued that in Sudan “protests, organized by groups of university students and graduates, came together as Facebook, Twitter and other Web sites were used to rally several thousand demonstrators.”
Maybe. But only 10% of people in Sudan even have access to the Internet, let alone use Facebook or Twitter. One wonders how many people in Sudan (or Egypt or Iran, for that matter) even know that these websites exist.
Indeed, the primary users of Twitter and Facebook seem to be well-educated, Internet-savvy Westerners – the type of people who, not coincidentally, write articles for the New York Times and Washington Post. The Western media’s focus on so-called “Twitter Revolutions” may tell less about the revolution and more about the preoccupations of the American journalists who cover about the revolution.