Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Social Media Becomes Vital


The news has been transformative lately. Or maybe I should say transformed.

On June 12th, Iranian elections were held. Reports are conflicting as to what happened next, but a variety of sources allege vote tampering and outright fraud. The hardline incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner by the Islamic Republic News Agency while a spokesman for opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former Prime Minister, claims election officials had contacted the Mousavi camp to inform him of his win.

A former interior minister for Iran, now an election monitor for the Mousavi camp claims votes were cast in at least 70 municipalites that exceeded the number of eligible voters. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in the home region of Mousavi (imagine John Kerry winning Texas in 2004 for a hint of the likeliness of this) as well as in metropolitan areas like Tehran (now swap George W. Bush winning in Manhattan for a similar level of unlikeliness).

From these questionable results, Iranian supporters of Mousavi took to the streets. And as is to be expected in a repressive regime, the government clamped down with a vengeance, not only on protestors but on media sources as well. Visas for foreign journalists were denied and suspended. An Italian translator for Italian public television was beaten and his tapes confiscated. The BBC Persian Television signal was jammed. The offices of NBC, ABC and German television offices in Tehran were raided and materials taken. Popular websites like Facebook were filtered, cell phone services were shut down.

News of events in Iran were sparse. CNN's website barely had any mention of the election results and aftermath. On cable, the story popped up on the hour in brief updates. Newswires ran a few items noting election irregularities, but the story remained lukewarm in the mainstream media.

Enter Twitter.

In what can only be described as Twitter's most salient moment, even more so than the Hudson River landing and the assault in Mumbai, Iranian Twitterers began sending out messages from the streets. In real-time, first person accounts, news began to appear. Twitter users in the United States pressed news organizations to devote more time to the story, especially CNN by adopting the hashtag #CNNFail and the news org stepped up their coverage. Avid Twitter user, CNN host Rick Sanchez was less than thrilled with the social media revolt, but the media has begun paying attention.

Users like @persiankiwi and @change_for_iran and more kept up a steady stream of updates from Tehran University and elsewhere. If you go to Twitter search for #Iranelection the updates continue to come in fast and furious. Leave the page open for five minutes and hundreds of new posts arrive. And those posts contain links to videos like this one on YouTube of Iranian militia firing at protestors and hitting at least one and of wounded protestors receiving medical treatment in a garage (warning these are quite disturbing). It includes links to photos of protests, what some claim are ballots found in the trash, and Tehran University the morning after pro-goverment militia attacked it. Secondary sites have been popping up such as Iran Unrest funneling Twitter messages, videos, news articles, and pictures from the revolution.

When Twitter scheduled a downtime for maintenance, users protested, noting that the downtime would be the middle of the day in Tehran, when the news coming out through Twitter was most important. Twitter resisted user pressure, but found themselves caving at last when the State Department made a similar request. Behind this request was a twenty-seven year old Rhodes Scholar at State, Jared Cohen, whose job it has been at the department to work "with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services to harness their reach for diplomatic initiatives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."

Iranian officials began to play catch up, though. There were reports that government censors were blocking cell transmissions, that they were signing up for Twitter accounts and posting misinformation, and that they were scouring Twitter profiles based on location. In response, Iranians on the ground moved locations, hacked government websites, and repeatedly switched phones. A complex and deadly game of whack-a-mole developed where outside sources set up proxy servers for Iranians Twitterers and the government shut them down as quickly as they found them. Users abroad retweeted the message of the government profile searches and virally spread the news for users to change their profiles to +3:30 GMT, Tehran time to flood the zone and throw off Iranian censors.

The Twittersphere was striking back. In a small way, yes. But striking back through the power of the group against top-down controls. It is everything Twitter marketers claim for the power of social media in the consumer realm, only in a much more important and serious fashion.

In a moment such as this, Twitter plays an unprecedented role on the international stage. Thanks to the power of social media, most specifically Twitter, the world is now watching. As long as access to the streaming messaging service continues unchecked, government censors and security forces will be unable to entirely clamp down on the resistance. And once an authoritarian regime loses its ability to monologue to their citizens and the world, it is a genie that can not be put back into the bottle.

1 comment:

Ms. Keirn-Swanson said...

I have an article for you to read and share with the David Group. I read it for tonight's class. It is about the necessity of colleges to use social networking sites and applications to communicate with students. It even advocates that each department of a college have its own Facebook and Twitter accounts.