A different take on the State Department's Twitter request

Let me be my usual cynical self and try to speculate on the real reasons behind the State Department's request to Twitter to delay maintenance.

The widely-accepted narrative goes like this: the State Department officials realized the importance of Twitter to Iranian protests and at some point on Monday afternoon got in touch with Twitter's executives and asked them to delay maintenance; the company complied and kept the Iranians, Americans, and everyone else with nothing else to do during this revolution tweeting. Bravo, American diplomats: you are all on the cutting-edge of innovation. 

This unusual outreach from the State Department has now emerged as one of the arguments for why Twitter has been influential in Iran; if American diplomats think it's important to keep Twitter alive, it must by all means be very important – even if few people can actually see or prove why.


I kid you not, what follows is a quote from a New York Times article: the delay in Twitter's maintenance reveals “the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country”. If only life was that simple, my dear friends at the New York Times: blogging services do not change history, not even if the State Department asks them; people do. Moreover, I am increasinly skeptical of the State Department's own ability to change history - or at least, to change it for the better, but let's save it for another post. 

I am just trying to seconguess the logic of those who have reported on the State Department's intervention have relied upon. Was it something like “well, we don't know anything about Twitter's real impact, but the State Department thinks it's influentila, and it must certainly be so then; remember, we are journalists, we don't have to dig any deeper”.

Does anyone else find it extremely fishy? Since when the decisions by the State Department – not exactly the hotbed of new media innovation – are representative of anything?

Let me offer a slightly more complex narrative (which is, of course, pure speculation and may have no basis in reality): Jared Cohen, a publicity-hungry and book-plugging 27-year old whizz kid who also happens to be the youngest member ever named to the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff (at 25) discovers that there are huge anti-maintenance protests brewing among Twitter's community members (organized with a common hashtag #nomaintenance), decides to jump on the bandwagon and squeeze out as much PR of this Twitter move as one can, and emails Twitter executives who were planning to put maintenance on hold anyway (on Tuesday, the company made out of its way to point out that “the State Department does not have access to our decision-making process”).

His bet pays off: the story gets into the New York Times, and many other newspapers – and, most importantly, it immediately gives him a whole new paragraph in his Wikipedia entry that portrays him as a hero who has helped keep the new Iranian revolution alive. Here it is:

Cohen has become a specialist in the use of new media to advance American interests among Middle Eastern youth. During June 2009 he intervened to keep the Twitter network online, delaying scheduled engineering work, so that supporters of the Iranian opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, favoured by the U.S., could continue using the network to plan anti-government activities.

Other benefits abound too: this saves the face for the State Department (they did exactly nothing to take advantage of social media in anticipation of the elections) ; it also allows Hillary Clinton to claim some relevance, and probably puts Jared Cohen in line for a Nobel Peace Prize (check this headline on a blog from the Daily Mail: “The Man Who Saved Iran”). Now, this reads like a story that is fundamentally different from the narrative of “the State Department saves Iranians from the evil hands of Silicon Valley corporations”. But this won't make for exciting headlines, will it?