Can Twitter prevent a nuclear war?

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As Iran announces that it has produced its first batch of uranium enriched to 20%, and is accused by the United States of seeking a “near-total information blockade” to silence anti-government protesters, you might be forgiven for worrying just a little bit about the future.

This clip by Saturday Night Live above might not help the “is there going to be a nuclear war?” situation.

But while mainstream news media, such as CNN, have been unable to report first-hand from the country, social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have come into their own.

As the CNN video clip demonstrates, messages on Twitter (“tweets”) are providing eye-witness accounts of the pro-Mousavi march in memory of those killed by the Government.

(One note of caution – the CNN report doesn’t make clear if the Twitter messages are being reported verbatim or are translations. If the latter is the case, this would explain why an Iranian would refer to her mother as her “mom” in a tweet).

During the CNN clip, the role of Twitter was put into context by Wired magazine’s Nicholas Thompson, who points out that Twitter is only the most visible social network site and hence the easiest for outsiders to pick up on. Closed Facebook groups or good old-fashioned text messages are more effective tools in organising protest action within Iran.

However, its openness is precisely what makes Twitter such an important news source for those outside the country.

Because Twitter can be used from a mobile phone (no computer or Internet access is necessary), it is ideally suited to on-the-spot reporting of breaking news events. And because Twitter messages are cascaded from one group of users to another, they get distributed at an exponential rate – known as “re-tweets”.

Research has shown that Twitter messages from Iran get re-tweeted over 300 times, reaching hundreds or even thousands of people at each stage. It is very effective at spreading news information very quickly, using technology that governments find extremely difficult to control or suppress.

Even if the main Twitter.Com website is blocked, the service can still be accessed from alternative sites, including Facebook, or from third-party applications such as Tweet Deck – and, of course, via mobile phone.

But social networking sites aside, perhaps the most potent weapon against dictatorships of any kind is humour – which is where the video clip from Saturday Night Live comes in.

Let’s hope Iran’s leaders don’t see it and immediately declare nuclear war, or it could be the case that we all die laughing.

About Steve Harrison, Website Director