Friday 26 June 2009

Why Michael Jackson will test the Iranian Twitter revolution

If John Lennon had been shot dead outside the Dakota Building in December 1979 instead of December 1980, would Khomeini still have become the Supreme Leader of Iran later the same month? If Diana had been pursued into that tunnel under the Pont d’Alma in November 1989 instead of eight years later would the Berlin Wall still have fallen?

Of course, yes.

If the paedo prince of peace (and, okay let’s be fair here, the King of Pop and much else besides) hadn’t died from a heart attack in Bel-Air right in the middle of the month when the west had discovered the power of soft diplomacy, Iranian democrats had discovered the effectiveness of international support, and progressive international politics had discovered the power of web 2.0, would the future of the middle east have been significantly different?

Well, of course, who knows.

But the undoubted role that the internet has played in Tehran this June means that we cannot discount the idea that the swamping of this weekend’s news and online agenda with Jackson’s death – and what will surely be at least a week’s worth of news cycles after that – will do nothing but harm the cause of democracy in Iran.

Alistair Campbell recently pointed out that the increasingly autistic British mainstream media can only deal with one crisis at a time. One minute we were all about to be killed by swine flu and newspapers could think of nothing else, the next minute we were up to our ears in the biggest constitutional crisis in the history of Westminster and hamaggedon was long forgotten.

“What will the next one be? Who knows? Nobody, least of all [the journalists].
All we know is that when it does come, they will be instant experts, and they
will assume that it - whatever it is - is the only story that anyone out there
cares about.”

Will new media be any different? It could be; Michael versus Mahmood might be the test.

Twitter – while its own role in Iran has probably been overstated – has nevertheless become symbolic of the way the online world has affected the outcome of events on the ground, mostly through chat rooms and uncensored online news. A fellow of the Harvard Center for Internet and Society, no less, told the New York Times today that “My twitter search script sees roughly 15% of all posts on Twitter mentioning Michael Jackson. Never saw Iran or swine flu reach over 5%.”

As I write, every mainstream news site is devoted to – frankly – deeply dull helicopter shots of hundreds of journalists milling around a hospital in LA. (When will 24 hour news realise that a death – apart from the passing moment itself – is really a pretty uneventful event once it’s happened?) Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and even RealClearPolitics are all splashing on MJ. (I should imagine Mark Sanford is rather relieved, incidentally.)

The death of Neda on the streets of Tehran (I’d link to it but I’m not sure I want to watch it myself) showed the power of the international online community to mobilise. The death of Michael Jackson in LA may show how fickle we are. If this is the real legacy of the man who bizarrely craved to be remembered as a saintly peacemaker we’ll only have ourselves to blame.


Sunder Katwala said...


Good piece and nicely written. I wasn't sure who would manage to write about this for Next Left and how. I think there is something in the argument, but my feeling is that you overstate the influence or impact which western twitterers or media can have on events in Iran. We are observers, not participants, except at the margin.

This does create a sense of solidarity, and could do much to change western (esp US) perceptions of Iran. So western activity (which might reduce) could have a longer-term impact on the way we think about or engage Iran, but it is harder for it to be decisive on political events now: and there is the danger of any attempt to do more than that doing more harm than good to those we would want to help.

Yet, your main butterfly effect claim could stand up - less because the fickleness and wall-to-wall Jacko takes us away from retwittering and commenting on events in Iran, but simply if it were to overwhelm the servers and so diminish or take out of play Twitter and the important impact which the Iranian protestors themselves can make of it to organise, mobilise and get information out.

(Perhaps especially if it had happened at the moment of the election declaration and earliest protests).

Unless Iranian youth are also fixated by the King of Pop. I hope not.

jakbop said...

interesting, you think twitter is a cause itself for action, and can't be used by tricksters in manipulating a false 'spontaneous public protest'.
Fact: the allegations about the vote were lies and manipulated to cause a breach in peace, and suffering. Unquestioning twitter sheep were manipulated. Have they the ability to review that? I doubt it - it's base on a feel-good sheep mentality; facts or truth simply didn't matter.

You are the judge of Michael Jackson? You say he's a paedo? You would be braver to pursue existing incumbent politicians involved in institutional paedophilia.
Jackson fought and was cleared of charges, which were brought by conspiracy with bogus complaint.
Again you are forming a judgement for a reason you cannot explain. I can: you're allowing yourself to be manipulated. Look into what the artist really was about. Look into what the Iranian election really represents. Look for alternative news sources and weight them up.