With the absence of foreign journalists covering the turmoil in Iran following the recent elections, much of the world is relying heavily (if not solely) on Twitter to get news of the developing situation.
The journalist in me finds this a bit unsettling.
According to a recent article in Time, “the vast body of information about current events in Iran that circulates on Twitter is chaotic, subjective and totally unverifiable. It’s impossible to authenticate sources. It’s also not clear who exactly is using Twitter within Iran, especially in English. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the bulk of tweets are coming from “hyphenated” Iranians not actually in the country who are getting the word out to Western observers, rather than from the protesters themselves, who favor other, less public media.”
Reading this reminded me of the movie Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper, in which the telling of York’s heroic deeds, (as the scuttlebutt moves down the line), gets distorted to the point where instead of capturing several score of German soldiers, the tale has York single-handedly apprehending the Kaiser.
Some would say that any information is better than no information. Especially in a totalitarian state where the government blocks all but the state media. I would simply caution that the chance of getting (and unknowingly spreading) misinformation based on error, rumor, or worse, manipulation must always be considered. Especially when such information may influence or incite large-scale actions that could harm the innocent.
The Time article continues, “Twitter didn’t start the protests in Iran, nor did it make them possible. But there’s no question that it has emboldened the protesters, reinforced their conviction that they are not alone and engaged populations outside Iran in an emotional, immediate way that was never possible before.”
And therein lies the rub. The very first thing they taught us in Journalism School was that news should never be more than an objective representation of corroborated facts. When emotion and opinion enter the equation, it’s all to easy for the “truth” to become subject to interpretation and personal preference.