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Iran Protests: The Whole World Is Watching, Flickring, Tweeting

Iran Protests: The Whole World Is Watching, Flickring, Tweeting

Election protests in Iran have reached a fever pitch, and social media technologies like Twitter have led the way in bringing observers around the world firsthand updates of developments. The information being communicated is immediate, raw, hot-blooded, sometimes graphic, and almost as hard to verify as it is to censor.

By Renay San Miguel
06/16/09 12:03 PM PT

"The whole world is watching" was one of the loudest rallying cries of Vietnam protesters gathered in the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic convention in 1968. Forty-one years later, the same slogan still applies and is even more relevant in the chaotic streets of Tehran. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social media technologies, the whole world is indeed watching Iranian citizens rise up against suspect presidential election results.

Just a few of Tuesday's tweets on the #iranelection Twitter feed, from people inside and outside Iran:

  • "U.S. media coverage still lacking. Keep up the pressure, Iranian protesters. We stand with you!"
  • "Hearing Allaho Akbar & Down with Dictator ... Much stronger than last night."
  • "From Iran: (huge news if true!) "Police has arrested some Basijis who wanted to attack ppl in front of IRIB HQ"
  • "RT from Iran Doctors & nurses protesting in a major hospital in Tehran (vid)"
  • "Police forces are joining people in Tehran. In Tehran, Jamejam, police tried to capture government forces who attacked ppl."

New 'Liberation Technologies'

The chaos roiling Tehran is reflected in the surge of claims, counterclaims and unverified information streaming in and out of the country, and paranoia is starting to creep into the social media feeds. A popular retweeted item from BoingBoing.net's Cory Doctorow gives useful advice for those on the outside wanting to assist Iran's revolution: Don't publicize proxy Web addresses that are allowing protesters to get around government intervention; use the right hashtags for passing along information; know that government security may be setting up fake accounts to stage traps and pass along bad info; and make your Twitter settings on local Tehran time to confuse militia hunting down dissidents.

Social media tools are just the latest in a long line of "liberation technologies" that have helped entire populations change the world, according to Ann Hollifield, head of the University of Georgia's Grady School of Journalism's telecommunications department and professor of media research.

"For the last 30 years, every new communications technology has opened a new avenue for people to organize as community and political activists," Hollifield told TechNewsWorld.

"At the end of the 1980s, with the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall, activists behind the Iron Curtain were using fax machines to evade government censors whenever possible," she noted. "Now, we have a lot of other options -- so the process is essentially the same, but the new technologies offer new avenues and new ways of avoiding shutdowns, government blockages and, in many cases, the ability for government to trace them."

The Power of an Open Internet

The Iranian situation and the role of social media point to the very reasons the Center for Democracy and Technology exists, according to its president, Leslie Harris. The CDT sees Twitter and Facebook as extraordinarily powerful tools for freedom, especially in the hands of young adults, and governments will have a harder time suppressing them.

Their use in Iran is akin to the role of social media and text messages in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Harris said, and how young people in Colombia used Facebook to organize against FARC guerrillas.

"Now, we're seeing it in Iran," Harris told TechNewsWorld, adding that there's a lesson for Western nations. "It's why it's so important that governments need to understand as they are shaping Internet policy how vital it is to keep these technology tools open and unfettered. They don't always understand that in the moment. Our government ought to be doing everything possible to encourage the deployment of the Internet everywhere, and supporting its use for democracy."

Social media power came at the expense of traditional media during the weekend, when the election results were first announced; they were almost immediately contested by crowds of demonstrators. One of the big media themes to develop after that was how CNN and other cable networks, which provided wall-to-wall coverage of Tienanamen Square, were largely using taped programming as the situation unfolded in Tehran. The result: a Twitter feed titled "#CNNFail."

Its use in Iran shows that Twitter has finally arrived as a journalism tool, former NBC producer/reporter Hanson Hosein, now director of digital media at the University of Washington, wrote in his Flip The Media blog. However, he added some qualifications:

"Can we finally put the social media naysayers to rest, now that traditional journalism is seemingly vanquished on the streets of Tehran? Yes. No. I'm having a hard time filtering through #iranelection, beyond the re-tweets and second-hand information passed around by Twitterers outside the country," Hanson wrote.

\ "The expat Iranian opposition is well organized, and will do what they (as well as others with a vested interest in the downfall of the mullahs) can to keep this political fire burning. And without a doubt, this thread has attracted a huge amount of commentary from folks who would not normally pay any attention to an overseas story like this -- except that it has hit upon that magic, unknowable recipe of universal appeal," he observes.

The New Blend of News Gathering

Doesn't the stream of unconfirmed items on Twitter and Facebook make a tense situation even more dangerous as the items get repeated and retweeted without verification?

"I've been saying that about social media generally, and the new roles the citizens must play," UW's Hosein told TechNewsWorld. "Even if they're not journalists -- if journalism is not going to give us all the answers anymore -- it's up to us. We all have to work a little harder to confirm things. We can't take [tweets] at face value. It can be quite dangerous. We should be doing as much fact-checking as possible."

Like a lot of other former and current journalists, Hosein has been fascinated as he watches the Iranian story unfold in real-time in social media. Unlike the use of Twitter during last year's Mumbai terrorist attacks, "it's more than breaking news. That's what's wonderfully powerful and a little bit intimidating. It's actually a movement. I think it's wonderful, but you have to keep your skeptical hat on."

Yet, unlike past liberation technologies -- faxes and radio in the former East Germany, satellite-fed video from China's Tienanmen Square -- this one may prove tougher for governments to suppress, the Grady School's Hollifield said, because of the mobile aspects of social media.

"Citizen journalists will play a much greater role, and this is a very powerful example of that," she commented. "We'll see more of it in the future. I also think it's an example of how difficult it will be for authoritarian regimes to control their populations in the future. To shut people off from information in the modern age is increasingly difficult for governments to do."


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