Friday, June 19, 2009

Iran’s Twitter Revolution

It’s true that most people and even 75% of Twitter members have no idea of Twitter’s power. I’ve tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get most of my friends to join and use Twitter (a free service), but most don’t join, or else they join and don’t really use it. The problem is, it’s almost impossible to explain Twitter, because you have to join it and then you have to dig in and use some of its tools and add-ons to appreciate its power.

Iran’s Twitter Revolution

by Ross Kaminsky 06/18/2009

What neither the U.N. nor the European Union have been able to do, what the Great Satan is too preoccupied with its finances to even try, may be accomplished by a social-networking internet site called Twitter.

Quasi-nuclear Iran, the principal sponsor of terrorism in the world, may be enjoying a revolt against the oppressive regime of the ayatollahs that is made possible by hitherto unavailable -- and convenient, cheap and nearly ublockable -- communications between protesters.

If you’re not posting to the #iranelection hashtag with your green-overlayed avatar, chances are you’re missing what is probably the single most important political use of technology in history: The Iranian “Twitter Revolution.”

For those of you who don’t know, Twitter is essentially an enormous chat room but with a few very important modifications: Users can “follow” other users, getting each “tweet” those users send out -- you don’t have to see every message from every Twitter user. Tweets are limited to 140 characters, so you never have to read long rants. You can reply or you can “retweet,” sending out a tweet you received so that your followers, who may be a different group than those you follow, can see something you think important. And, most importantly for the purposes of using Twitter as an effective informational and organizing tool, you can attach a “hashtag” (a pound sign “#” followed by letters and/or numbers) to a tweet and users can follow particular hashtags.

For example, the hashtag #tcot represents “Top Conservatives on Twitter,” a group with over 5,000 members, while #iphone and #teaparty are exactly what you think (unless you think the latter is about sitting down and drinking tea.) But the critical hashtag of the week is undoubtedly “#iranelection,” with tens of thousands of Twitter users -- most importantly in Iran -- communicating among each other and with the wider world 140 characters at a time.

Make no mistake: This is a huge threat to the Iranian regime -- a pro-liberty movement being fomented and organized in short sentences. And while we’ve talked about “mass communication” for decades, we’ve never truly seen communication for the masses until these past few days.

As I write this (Wednesday), I’m consistently seeing upwards of 40 tweets per minute coming through in the #iranelection category. Messages range from (most importantly) people in Iran reporting what’s going on in the streets (“All foreign news reporters in Iran locked down in their hotels,” “Rumors of Hamas helping Iran regime suppress dissent”), to Americans reflecting on what they’re learning (“Iran protesters, please keep it going. Help your kids!”), to tech-geek hints on how to help pro-Democracy Iranians circumvent their government’s attempts to stop them.

Another important aspect of Twitter is that its messages can be sent and received as cell phone text messages, making it an extremely powerful organizing tool. You may have heard, for example, about Twitter being used by the organizers of Tax Day Tea Parties in the U.S. But that -- and every prior use of Twitter and the internet, at least for politics -- pales in comparison to what is happening in Iran.

The impact of Twitter on events in Iran has been noticed by our usually dictator-compliant State Department, which risked insulting the ayatollahs by contacting Twitter to request they postpone a scheduled system maintenance down-time. Even al-Jazeera is commenting on the importance of technology, including Twitter, in what I hope is the Second Iranian Revolution.

Despite being old men with little exposure to leading-edge technology, Iran’s ruling Guardian Council understands the essential value of communication to freedom: If they can communicate freely, no people can be long enslaved.

The Iranian government has taken substantial steps to limit their citizens’ ability to use the internet. They have blocked most access to Facebook and other sites, have limited text messaging, and have cut the nation’s “bandwidth,” meaning the speed with which one can send information through the internet, but have stopped short of simply cutting of the nation’s internet connectivity (probably because they need it themselves.) However, with “tweets” of only 140 characters or less, bandwidth is a non-issue (as opposed to, for example, transmitting videos).

While it is impossible to prove, it appears the government is creating fictional Twitter users for their own purposes: trying to find, disrupt, and arrest pro-Democracy agitators and organizers, and trying to spread misinformation. Indeed, there is now at least one web page dedicated to weeding out and blocking “fake Iran election tweeters.” For example, Tuesday there were repeated “retweets” of a message saying the army was moving in to crush protests in Tehran. The tone of the note was suspicious, and although such an occurrence is not beyond possibility, it struck me as more likely a government agent trying to scare people away from joining the protests. News reports never confirmed the claim of the army’s movements.

But just as the Iranian regime infiltrates Twitter, users look for their own defenses, warning not to “retweet” messages from Iran and to look for confirmation before believing any claims of major importance. It’s an entirely new sort of battle, and one which the mullahs are not likely to win -- which is not to say that this battle will necessarily be decisive in Iran’s nascent revolution. For example, while the regime is busy trying to block Twitter and other sites directly, supporters of the Iranian protesters are setting up “proxies” outside Iran -- computers which Iranians can access and go through to get to Twitter and elsewhere. It’s only a matter of time until the regime finds and blocks a given proxy, but that time represents extra hours of pro-freedom communication and organizing for another ten or fifty or more courageous Iranians.

The Iranian government is reportedly stepping up their efforts to block Twitter and other forms of electronic communication. Some think the increased censorship was tied to Twitter messages to the Iranian soccer team, which was playing in Korea, urging the players to wear green wrist bands in solidarity with the protestors. Pictures of players on the field seem to show they did just that, though Photoshop makes almost any image possible to create. It was widely reported on Twitter (and then elsewhere) that the players removed the wristbands at halftime.

No wonder the mullahs are afraid of Twitter if it can not only help organize protests within their country but also stir up pro-freedom reactions thousands of miles away. It isn’t surprising that a CBS reporter says that all access to Twitter was blocked in Iran as of Wednesday morning. Well, until the young, tech-savvy population there finds a way around the mullah’s electronic muzzle.

I, like many others, was somewhat skeptical of Twitter but decided to get involved with it a few weeks ago after talking with conservative blogger Michelle Malkin. I asked her for her thoughts on the Twitter revolution in Iran: “I've tried to persuade friends for months that Twitter is much, much more than a celebrity vanity tool. The Iranian uprising has shattered that myth once and for all. In the hands of freedom-loving dissidents, the micro-blogging social network is a revolutionary samizdat -- undermining the mullah-cracy's information blockades one Tweet at a time.”


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