The wide spread availability of user generated content online has become a potential source of information in situation of crisis. Social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr, for example, made frontline news during the Iranian post-election protests in mid-2009 when the mainstream media was lagging far behind in reporting the escalating crisis, at least until the Iranian authorities started to limit and monitor online access. However, the mainstream humanitarian and human rights community remains largely skeptical of social media. While the Iranian example shows that some suspicions are indeed well founded, the use of social media also provided critical information that would otherwise have gone unreported.
The inability to verify the information is an important factor that explains why many in the humanitarian community see little added value in following social media. For example Tweets can certainly misinform and there were many such examples in Iran. take one of these, one assessment of Twitter use stated, “several people tweeted that 700,000 people had gathered at the Ghoba mosque in Tehran. Several people re-tweeted it and even posted the news on their blogs. Meanwhile mainstream international media estimated the number of protesters was between 3,000-5,000 people.” This becomes particularly problematic when such Tweets are re-tweeted. One study noted that one in four tweets on Iran was a re-tweet. It is also worth noting that Twitter’s use within Iran was nearly zero and that most of the traffic was in English, not Farsi. A cause of concern is the traffic was not coming from within Iran rather than from a country where Twitter has its most readers.
In his review of the role of social networking in the Iran situation, James Carafano notes, “An effective crisis communication must be credible, understandable, and actionable. Under great stress and limited time, as well as limited information, it is unrealistic to hold that negotiated online interactions are an effective mechanism for determining factual and dependable information.