On September 9, Roger Cohen wrote in "New Tweets Old Needs," (New York Times/Opinion) "To be a journalist is to bear witness . . . No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream." I have no quarrel with that. But he also juxtaposed professional journalism with the "Here Comes Everybody" of social media and stated that in the absence of reporters, "Iran has gone opaque. Its crisis is seen through a glass darkly. Its cries are muffled, its anguish subdued." As someone who since June has been witnessing the events in Iran virtually, I do have a quarrel with that and can vouch that the crisis as reported on Twitter and Facebook, YouTube and Flikr and iReports is anything but opaque. Frenzied , maybe, but incoherent, muffled or subdued? On the contrary.
In a country in crisis where foreign journalists are banned, local reporters are jailed, and state media only deliver tabloid news and propaganda -- but where 31% of the population has access to the Internet -- social media are a vital source of news, and then some. Ordinary people are self-training in reporting the facts at increasingly sophisticated levels. "Everybody" is sharing the spirit, the beat, the hopes, and links to substantive information in ways otherwise impossible. Their contribution is in fact so vital that the Green Movement has adopted the tagline, "YOU ARE THE MEDIA." For those who read Persian, the uncensored comments posted on YouTube videos, online newspapers and blogs -- even on the regime's "OpPressTV" -- give us a direct insight into the people's aspirations, many of them far more radical than the reformist leaders'. Add to this Twitter accounts such as @EANewsFeed, @Iran_Translator, and @TehranBureau that not only vet and report user-generated news coherently but also engage users in lively, interactive, real time, online debates. As one tweeter wrote, "Twitter is the global 'town hall' meeting for the pro-democracy movement." In aggregate, the content of social media is an oral history of a grassroots human rights movement in Iran; its form, the relation between the media and the message in the 21st century.
Consider this: thirty years ago, Khomeini recorded a message into audio-cassettes in Paris and distributed it secretly in mosques and bazaars in Iran. In 2009, a message evolved in real time on social media by a mix of accidental leaders and masses of people and disseminated openly in cyberspace. In both, the medium was the message. In 1979, the dictated message was, 'I am The One; follow my orders; end of discussion; beginning of theocracy.' In 2009, the living message was, 'we want an open, friendly society; let's have a conversation; let's have some democracy.'
If Socrates were alive today, he would be tweeting and interacting frantically with millions and millions of followers, not just telling them.
There is no denying the vital contribution of journalists who initially put the ecstasy and the agony of Iran on the radar. But since June 16, I have had nowhere else to go for breaking news except for social media, or for clues to the fate of the men and women who have been arrested, murdered, raped or tortured by the Islamic Republic of Iran that to quote a tweeter, is neither Islamic nor a Republic. People as avatars have been bearing witness to a dream turned horror story, their cries anything but muffled and their anguish anything but subdued. The power of social media has bred a new consciousness in Iran. "Each person a people" is how Mousavi's latest statement, posted on Twitter and Facebook, describes it. Without social media, we would have no-one to turn to today but the professional journalists on the regime's payroll. No thanks.
The government is blocking, filtering and slowing down the Internet, but the people are still reporting. Late in the evening on September 6, I tweeted one of my favorite sources in Iran to ask if Twitter was still alive and well over there. The next day he replied, "TEST" and posted a link. When I clicked there he was, alive and well and cheerful and smoking and testing a live video chat! Someone immediately posted a comment: "Don't smoke, it's bad for you." Another tweet read, "Twitter is now all I have, my home, my friends."