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Twitter as Scarlet Pimpernel

The current Spectator contains the following article by Toby Young: “Status Anxiety: In Iran, Twitter has been a technological Scarlet Pimpernel”, which begins with an apology:

I would like to take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly to Twitter. Like many of my colleagues, I unfairly characterised it as a vacuous expression of our narcissistic age. In fact, it turns out to be the most effective tool for advancing freedom and democracy since the invention of the internet. In Iran, the anti-government protesters have been circumventing President Ahmadinejad’s efforts to stop them organising by communicating via Twitter. Not only that, but they have been using the social networking site to file pictures and news reports, documenting the government’s brutal attempt to suppress the protest. If President Ahmadinejad falls and Mousavi is installed in his place, this will surely come to be known as the Twitter Revolution.

I don’t know about the last sentence … I just hope there will soon be an end to the violence perpetrated by the regime. The news, e.g. on CNN, make me shudder. What also causes a feeling of unease and almost surreality are the tweets that come out of Iran, like the one from an Iranian student (as his profile claims), who asks for advice about what to do against the effects of tear gas. – Well, what do you do if you’re hit by a cloud of tear gas? Ever thought of that? I hadn’t, until tonight. (I looked it up: You wash it off with soap and cold water.)
It’s pathetic, of course, how helpless you feel – as might be expected; if confronted with brutality, most civilised people will duck and be afraid – which is why the brutal people use brutality.
But why do we get to read twitter messages such as the following at all?

The reason why Twitter is fairly robust is explained in the Spectator article:

Because users of the service can tweet from a wide range of platforms — web browsers, mobile phones, etc — it is difficult to shut down. If an Iran-based web server is closed, users simply re-route their messages via another server. Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School, says, ‘It is easy for Twitter feeds to be echoed everywhere in the world. The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what make it so powerful.’ Twitter is the technological equivalent of the Scarlet Pimpernel: ‘They seek [him] here, they seek him there… that damned elusive Pimpernel.’

If you are like me, you haven’t heard of “Scarlet Pimpernel” before. It is, first of all, a “low-growing, annual plant in the family Primulaceae” (the Wikipedia source has a picture, too). But, secondly, it is also a novel “by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution. The story is a precursor to the “disguised superhero” tales such as Zorro, Superman and Batman” (s. Wikipedia), and it is from that novel that the quotation above is taken (cf. Wikiquote).

So Twitter is a kind of Ur-Batman to Toby Young? How flattering. Let’s just hope that it will help the good side to win, like Zorro, Superman, Batman and Pimpernel used to.

President Barack Obama’s statement on Iran today:

The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.

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