The historic events in Iran this weekend were also a good test case for new versus old media. On Saturday, as protesters swarmed the streets of Tehran to voice their outrage about an allegedly stolen presidential election and battled with baton-swinging riot police, the cable-news networks were busy with other things. MSNBC was mostly airing its standard weekend crime documentaries, while CNN on-the-ground legend Christiane Amanpour checked in only intermittently. But on the web, from Andrew Sullivan’s blanket coverage to the Huffington Post’s running live-blog, and various blogs inside Iran, the news never stopped. And, even more than the Mumbai attacks last year, this was Twitter’s coming-out party.
Twitterers expressed early on that CNN wasn’t satiating their news needs, and the CNN failure meme (#cnnfail) became so prevalent that anchor Don Lemon took to Twitter to defend the network. On Sunday, CNN improved its coverage, but a press crackdown in Iran meant that, for all major news outlets, reporting became difficult and dangerous.
Meanwhile on Twitter, dozens of ordinary Iranians provided firsthand, real-time updates protest marches, shouting from rooftops, beatings at the hands of security forces, and anything else they could see from their window or close up on the streets. Twitterers were also effective at widely disseminating powerful, sometimes shocking photos and video from YouTube, Flickr, and other sites as well as the mainstream media’s own reporting.
Even more impressive for a site often derided as just a place where people talk about what they’re eating is the real impact Twitter had on the organization of the protests themselves. As cell phones and text messaging were shut down in Iran, Twitter became one of the best ways to coordinate — not only for dissenters inside Iran, but for the world at large that wanted to play a more active role. The websites of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei were treated to a Twitter-wide effort to overload their servers. Twitterers have helped Iranians get around Internet blockage with usable IP proxies. And a worldwide effort to show support for Mousavi and his demonstrators by wearing green today was spread via Twitter.
Even so, Twitter’s shortfalls have become apparent as well. Search #iranelection on Twitter, and you will be bombarded with more information about the current situation than you could ever find on TV. But separating the signals from the noise is a Sisyphean task. Endless re-tweets may force you to read the same piece of news over and over. And who knows where that news is really coming from?
This is an advantage that the mainstream media, like CNN, still has the ability to verify, to filter through the rumor and hearsay and report only the confirmed facts. Instead of supplanting the news networks, as some have predicted a bit overenthusiastically, Twitter has shown its value as a complement medium, one that performs a different function than cable news, newspapers, or radio do.