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16 June 2009 8:00 AM

Idea in the News

Iran, Twitter, and The American Information Elite


IDEA IN THE NEWS / June 16, 2009 -- Over the weekend, Iran hurtled into political upheaval, and America's 24-hour cable news networks hardly noticed. Mark Ambinder explains the role Twitter played in Iran. Here in the United States, Andrew Sullivan made The Daily Dish a leading worldwide information hub for updates, an impressive feat for a guy blogging from a pier in Cape Cod (aided back at the Watergate by the most skilled aggregation helpers in the business). I'll leave it to others to remark on what this means for the Iranian people, or authoritarian governments generally. (See these stunning photos too.)

What I want to suggest is that events like this portend an interesting, largely unremarked upon change in American political discourse.

Consider the two groups of friends I saw in Washington DC this weekend. Group 1 is largely composed of young DC journalists, most of them bloggers. These folks were well aware of events in Iran by Saturday afternoon, getting their updates from blog coverage via Google Reader, or Twitter, or both -- the same way a few of my tech friends in San Francisco and my human rights advocate friends in NYC knew about the news.

Group 2 is more diverse--really just a collection of friends and acquaintances--among them federal employees, interns in several Obama Administration agencies, a high school teacher, three corporate lawyers, and other young professionals. This latter group knew almost nothing about the Iranian election, even Sunday night. One said she heard that Ahmadinejad won, but didn't yet realize the results were contested.

Yeah, it was the weekend. Who keeps up with the news outside the office? If CNN didn't even bother to jump on the story, why would various white collar professionals who work outside journalism bother? And the folks I know who write or follow blogs have been ahead of the curve on news for some time now.

But I've never seen an information asymmetry quite like this. The folks in the know had a pretty sophisticated grasp of events (though perhaps they thought they understood things better than was in fact the case).

And those out of the know? They aren't any longer just grandmothers, the apolitical, and the middle manager in Scranton who gets all his news at 11 o'clock after the game. Now people who watch The Daily Show, subscribe to The New Yorker, and read the CNN subtitles as they run on the 24 Hour Fitness treadmill possess radically less information than a self-selecting group of their fellow citizens, granting that they mostly catch up on any given piece of information in a matter of days.

Does this time lag matter? On the Iran story, probably not. There isn't anything particularly significant that the average American can do to influence events. Elites spreading information for a global audience was enough. But I can't help noticing that information elites are able to process breaking news and form political opinions about it faster than ever before (see the Feiler Faster thesis as told by Mickey Kaus); that these folks are blogging and Tweeting their policy suggestions and demands almost immediately; and that due to arguably dubious strategic political considerations, all of Congress seems to be getting on Twitter.

Are we approaching a point where political information is processed so fast that an event happens, information elites weigh in to shape the discourse surrounding it, the conventional wisdom is communicated to Congress, and elected leaders formulate reactions based on public opinion... all before most of even the formerly plugged in members of the public ever learn what on earth is going on, or have a chance to form an opinion? Is anyone who works at a company that blocks their Facebook feed going to be meaningfully disadvantaged in the political process? Egalitarian concerns aside, are the information elites going to set a course, ossify as they always do in their opinions, and influence the nation's course too hastily? Are we on course for a kind of political singularity?

It isn't quite time to declare that these ills are upon us. Or maybe it is, and I just don't know it yet.

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Comments (8)

Very interesting take on this, thank you. My husband and I were deeply immersed in the Iranian Election coverage this weekend, via Andrew Sullivan, Twitter and YouTube. Today at work, around the water cooler - crickets. Crickets and Letterman vs Palin. Trying to initiate a conversation about Iran this morning brought blank stares.

It's uncomfortable to me, this disparity.

Well, of course this has been going on for sometime now, the difference being that the information itself and a considered response will all come into being much faster than before.

I believe you are correct in saying the first in are the most influential. But a considered response can still form and win the day. Interesting piece.

Good luck on your new project.

I was ravenous for info all weekend and could only find up to the minute news with Andrew. I think he needs to be nominated for an award for his coverage of the last 4 days ... HE ROCKS!!!

I was soooooooo disappointed in CNN - called and wrote to them.

The coverage on the tee vee machine is still abysmal!

I jumped to the "stunning photos" before reading the story. I was struck by the realization that Americans for the most part will look upon this rioting in Tehran as wholly unjustifed. So what does it say about Americans that riot because their favorite sports team WINS a championship?!

I'm not sure I understand your point. Are you saying that big-time bloggers like Sullivan and Huffpost are the new 'political elites?' as compared to the 'old' political elites of print and cable/b'cast news? And that - given the real time reporting by blogs - they speed up the formation of consensus or dissenting views of rapid events?

Actually, I think the check and balances of the blogs over the weekend, including the staid NYT's Lede Blog, held back an early hardening of conventional wisdom.

Look at the NYTimes itself. Compare yesterdays Bill Keller 'news analysis' about what a clever politician Ahmadinejad is with NEIL MacFARQUHAR's analysis about Khatamenei 'blinking'.

This is testimony that the debate has been expanded and on-going precisely because the information is coming in fast and furiously. Keller was the one who jumped the gun.

The previous 'elites' - in your definition - would have 'put out the line' by now. Maybe they have on one level, but the churning underneath any conventional wisdom offered by the TV networks and print will persist and push through other views.

Conflicting postures in the midst of fast-moving events help get to the truth over time by preventing an early consolidation (usually led by the NYT) around a given narrative.

Interesting points, but three (somewhat related) questions come up in my mind.

First, to what extent is this just a new manifestation of the old phenomenon of news junkies or people with a particular interest in certain issues being more well-informed than most other people? With the proliferation of media sources, news junkies can engorge themselves to an extent they never have been able to. That doesn't make them necessarily an elite, however.

Similarly, while I'm not trying to insult you, what makes you think that DC bloggers are an information elite? The concept of an elite implies a group that can lead others by force or by influence. The first option is obviously not apt here, and I think you need to provide evidence to show that the blogosphere writers that you mention really do influence public policy. I'll grant you that certain memes to get picked up on the blogosphere and spread quickly, but I'm not sure that the people you mention are an elite in any really important measure as a group. There are some (like Andrew Sullivan, perhaps) that may have a bit more influence than others, but it's not like the idea of the semi-celebrity journalist is a new one. Frankly, I think one could easily argue that the corporate lawyers and higher-level federal employees are more of an elite than DC bloggers, from a financial and public policy standpoint.

Last, to what extent can all this chatter become a sort of white noise? Here again, the proliferation of media sources can lead to more outlets for information, but it can also diminish the influence of such sources. Let's put it this way, it's a lot less impressive to say you were interviewed on a TV network now than it was 30 years ago, and one can argue that all the blogosphere and much of cable news has done is create more minor celebrities that small groups of people are somewhat interested in, but most people really don't care about, including those who have actual power and influence in society.

I hope this comment hasn't come off as overly harsh, but I wonder if you're really assuming too much here.

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This really got me thinking about the power of twitter in the middle east. Did you know that the middle east has extremely low internet access - even lower than Africa? Nowhere in the world is the internet prohibited so strongly, except maybe in China.

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