David Rothkopf

There’s no such thing as a virtual revolution…

It’s hard to separate the twaddle from the Twitter these days. So let me help. The New York Times today has a story about how the State Department recognized the importance of twitter to the opposition in Iran and is promoting new technologies to support U.S. diplomatic interests.  Elsewhere in the same paper, my friend, ...

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It’s hard to separate the twaddle from the Twitter these days. So let me help. The New York Times today has a story about how the State Department recognized the importance of twitter to the opposition in Iran and is promoting new technologies to support U.S. diplomatic interests.  Elsewhere in the same paper, my friend, the tech savvy, ever thoughtful Tom Friedman has a column talking about how Twitter and Facebook and other social networking sites are new tools of dissent in the Middle East. CNN has also run a number of stories on the same phenomenon.

Certainly, these technologies are antidotes to traditional government control of the media. They also play an important role in mobilizing people to take the streets. But make no mistake about it, it is the real flesh and blood protests in the street that are the reason the political unrest in Iran remains a story today. That’s because, as Friedman pointedly notes, physical threats trump virtual threats anytime. The protestors in Iran are sending several messages when they gather in the streets. Only one of them is the same as the messages that they are tweeting, texting, and posting on each others’ Facebook walls. That is the message that can be conveyed in words, the one on the placards protestors hold up. But by virtue of their overt confrontation with the sometimes brutal Iranian authorities, the opposition is saying, “We acknowledge and accept the risk that the government may use force against us.” That is the message that takes effectively neutralizes the power to use force of the police and the military.

Further, by convening tens of thousands of people who are no longer intimidated, the protestors are saying we possess force of our own. You can’t put us all down.

That is why the mullahs are pacing the floor long after they’ve turned off Conan O’Brien every night. (Is there an Iranian equivalent of a late night comic? It’s not such an easy job. In Ahmadinejad’s Iran, when you say “take my wife, please” she probably actually disappears. Hard to put a laugh track to that.)

Clearly, Iran is in a state of unrest unlike anytime since the Islamic Revolution. Whether these protests ultimately result in change, they have done more than anyone thus far in effectively discrediting the Ahmadinejad regime. (And that’s saying something, since Ahmadinejad himself has been so darned effective in that respect.)

New media are playing a vital role in dissolving authoritarianism. But there are few overstatements quite as grand as the idea of a Twitter Revolution. The websites enable. But revolutions require courage, physical confrontation and risk. Twitter is Paul Revere on his horse. But don’t underestimate the very old fashioned flesh and blood requirements of real change.

Of course, part of the New York Times‘s Twitter story is that the State Department obviously sold it to show they are not sitting on the sidelines.  They have a 27 year old Stanford graduate keep the tweets flying. While this is not nothing, it’s close. Just as Twitter or Facebook offer an incredible simulation of real human interaction and discourse, so too does Twitter diplomacy offer only a simulation of real political support and the kind of intervention governments ought to be pursuing under circumstances like these. (One only hopes that America’s silence is shrewd cover for activities to which we should not be drawing attention.)

Finally, I offer this point about the irreplaceable nature of real vs. virtual interaction because I am at the end of a ten day trip around the world to meet with clients and get a feel for what’s going on in Europe, Asia and Latin America. As exhausting as it has been (so exhausting that I can hardly muster the energy to attack Sao Paulo’s stockyard of an airport as I have so many of the other awful airports I’ve experienced) what I have gained from really sitting in the room with live human beings beats e-commerce or web-based tours of the horizon anytime. What smells bad, smells bad. What feels uncomfortable, makes you sweat. What inspires outrage, gives you lots of potential real victims to choose from. (And once again, I am back airport bashing. How does that happen?)

But the point is the bonds that are forged are stronger, the commitments more palpable, and the understanding greater. It’s difficult to give an accurate picture of the world or build a real relationship in 140 characters or less. Which is why while marathon world tours are not for the faint of heart, I recommend them unreservedly. But that should be obvious by now.  Otherwise what possible reason could there be to put up with all those airports?

BorisVeldhuijzenvanZanten/flickr

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