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Thursday, June 18, 2009

I'm seeing a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about what's going on in Iran -- in many ways, with good reason. And also, there's a lot of excitement about the use of the Internet to disseminate information -- also, with good reason. But I'm also disturbed that I'm not hearing enough cautionary voices -- the voice of experience that says, "Just because you have protesters in the streets facing down powerful government forces does not mean there's a simple right/wrong, good/evil dichotomy going on. And just because you saw it on Twitter doesn't mean it's true."

My familiarity with Iranian politics is minimal, so on that side, I'll link to and quote a NY Times piece. But I'd also like to share some things I learned from having been eyewitness to a similar situation.

First, from the NY Times: An Insider Turned Agitator Is the Face of Iran's Opposition.

His followers have begun calling him “the Gandhi of Iran.” His image is carried aloft in the vast opposition demonstrations that have shaken Iran in recent days, his name chanted in rhyming verses that invoke Islam’s most sacred martyrs.

Mir Hussein Moussavi has become the public face of the movement, the man the protesters consider the true winner of the disputed presidential election.


But he is in some ways an accidental leader, a moderate figure anointed at the last minute to represent a popular upwelling against the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is far from being a liberal in the Western sense, and it is not yet clear how far he will be willing to go in defending the broad democratic hopes he has come to embody.


Mr. Moussavi, 67, is an insider who has moved toward opposition, and his motives for doing so remain murky. He was close to the founder of Iran’s Islamic Revolution but is at odds with the current supreme leader. Some prominent figures have rallied to his cause, including a former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. So it is not clear how much this battle reflects a popular resistance to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s hard-line policies, and how much is about a struggle for power.


The rest of the article is well worth reading. I think we in the West need to be aware that our politicians and media tend to portray in a positive light protests and revolutions against governments we don't like, manipulating public opinion to suit our own agenda. So, for example, when it's anti-communist protesters, it's portrayed as a home-grown democratic movement, and its leader is glorified. Remember Boris Yeltsin? He didn't exactly turn out to be all he was cracked up to be. Yes, in Iran it's about a stolen election. But when Mugabe stole the Zimbabwe election, Western interests were unaffected and coverage was minimal.

But the thing that has me most concerned now is the way the informal, grassroots dissemination of information via social networking sites and other internet-based services is being uncritically lauded. Yes, it's good that the images are getting out, but I'm convinced that Americans (and possibly Europeans, I don't know) have little idea how quickly rumors and misinformation spread in that kind of environment, and how very dangerous that can be.

In 1991, I was in Bucharest, Romania when a horde of coal miners from the the Jiu Valley descended on Bucharest and rioted in the streets for nearly a week. (This was about a year and a half after the Communist Ceausescu regime fell.) I covered the story for the NY Times. The whole situation was extremely confusing. Why were the miners here? Whose bidding were they doing? The previous year, they had come to Bucharest at the call of the government of President Ion Iliescu to put down student protests, and the miners beat students brutally in the streets. This time, they were protesting against the government, presumably because promises made after the last time had gone unfulfilled.

So there I was, trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. I could report what I saw -- the tear gas, the bullets, the fires, the tanks, the angry miners -- but I was trying to understand the who and the why as well. I asked everyone -- the miners, the Romanian reporters, government officials, friends, random people in the street. And let me tell you, what an education THAT was.

In a country where everyone assumes that the government and the media do nothing but lie, and where paranoia is ratcheted up to an excruciatingly high level, people become accustomed to holding opinions and beliefs with absolutely no evidence or hard information to base them on -- because evidence and hard information are impossible to come by. Age-old prejudices are as good as facts, and disseminating lies that you KNOW are lies in order to further your own agenda is 100 percent okay, whether you're an electrician or a journalist.

So, when I asked people why the miners were rioting, I was told with absolute certainty by people from all walks of life (including Romanian journalists and officials) that the miners were either being controlled by the international conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons, or that they were protesting AGAINST the international conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons. Clearly, Jews and Freemasons were involved, because the Prime Minster of Romania, Petre Roman, was one-quarter Jewish and a Freemason. Depending on who you asked, the miners were either still doing the government's bidding as they had done the previous year (in which case they're working for the Jews and Freemasons), or they had turned against their former masters. 

I was also constantly hearing complete misinformation about what was actually going on in the street. At various times, people told me with certainty that the parliament building had burned down (there had been a small fire); that dozens of people had been shot dead (two people had); that Petre Roman had fled the country (he hadn't, though he did eventually give in to pressure and step down); etc. I can only imagine how the echo chamber of the internet would have magnified that kind of misinformation.

At other times during my stay in Romania, I heard all kinds of crazy notions communicated as facts by people who you would think would have some idea about what constitutes reliable evidence. My favorite lie that I heard over and over again, including from physicians and orphanage directors, was that Romanian children were being adopted by Americans in order to harvest their organs (the proof: many adopted children were gypsies, and why else would anyone want them?).

This article, written by an American journalist who was a Fulbright Scholar in Romania at the same time I was there, rings true -- I can totally relate to being an American utterly befuddled by the Romanian mindset:

But behind the scenes—above politics and any notions of civil society—floats the fine hand of fate....Romania remains a deeply superstitious country, a place where intrigue and conspiracy are accepted as fact by everyone from unlettered peasants to elected officials.

My point is that I don't think most people in the West fully appreciate how incredibly fucked up things become in a society where people are unaccustomed to access to reliable information. We think Americans will believe anything, and that the American news media is a total joke. Yeah, American news media is on the decline, and it needs a lot of improvement, but it is still of enormous value, and our efforts should not be to replace professional journalism with any ol' blogger who wants to have his say. There's a role for that blogger, but it's NOT as a primary information source.

The media is guilty of presenting a skewed view of the world, but there are still lots of reporters on the ground working to verify information and to avoid reporting rumor as fact, and we need more of that, not less. Likewise, we need editors who hold their reporters' feet to the fire in terms of getting the story and getting it right. As consumers, we should demand more of that, not abandon traditional journalism altogether in favor of grainy videos from personal cell phones.

Going back to Iran -- I admire the people who want to choose their government and who are standing up for their rights. But just because I admire them doesn't mean I'm going to believe everything they say or assume their leader is the salvation of the Middle East. And I sure as hell am not going to rely on Twitter for my news.