The U.S. State Department doesn’t usually take an interest in the
maintenance schedules of dot-com startups. But over the weekend officials there reached
out to Twitter and asked them to delay a network upgrade that was scheduled
for Monday night. The reason? To protect the interests of Iranians using the
service to protest the presidential election that took place last Friday.
Twitter moved the upgrade to 2pm PST Tuesday afternoon or 1:30 am Tehran
time. Read “The Iran Election: Twitter’s Big Moment.”
When Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone founded Twitter in 2006, they
were probably worried about things like making money and protecting people’s
privacy and drunk college kids breaking up with each other in 140
characters or less. What they weren’t worried about was being suppressed by the Iranian
government. But in the networked, surreally flattened world of social media
those things aren’t as far apart as they used to be and what began as a toy
for online flirtation is suddenly being put to much more serious uses. After
the election in Iran, cries of protest from supporters of opposition
candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi arose in all possible media, but the loudest cries were
heard in a medium that didn’t even exist the last time Iran had an election. See pictures of Iran’s presidential elections and their turbulent aftermath.
So what exactly makes Twitter the medium of the moment It’s free, highly
mobile, very personal and very quick. It’s also built to spread, and fast.
Twitterers like to append notes called hashtags #theylooklikethis to their
tweets, so that they can be grouped and searched for by topic; especially
interesting or urgent tweets tend to get picked up and re-transmitted by
other Twitterers, a practice known as re-tweeting, or just RT. And Twitter is
promiscuous by nature: tweets go out over two different networks, the
Internet and SMS, the network that cell phones use for text messages, and they can be
received and read on practically anything with a screen and a network
connection. Read how Twitter is changing the way we live.
This makes Twitter practically ideal for a mass protest movement, both very
easy for the average citizen to use and very hard for any central authority
to control. The same might be true of e-mail, and Facebook, but those media
aren’t public. They don’t broadcast, as Twitter does. On Saturday, when
protests started to escalate, and the Iranian government moved to suppress
dissent both on- and off-line, the Twitterverse exploded with tweets from
people who weren’t having it, both in English and in Farsi. While the front
pages of Iranian newspapers were full of blank space where censors had
whited-out news stories, Twitter was delivering information from street
level, in real time:
Woman says ppl knocking on her door 2 AM saying they were intelligence
took her daughter
Ashora platoons now moving from valiasr toward National Tv staion. mousavi’s
supporters are already there. my father is out there!
we hear 1dead in shiraz, livefire used in other cities RT
As is so often the case in the media world, Twitter’s strengths are also its
weaknesses. The vast body of information about current events in Iran that
circulates on Twitter is chaotic, subjective and totally unverifiable. It’s
impossible to authenticate sources. It’s also not clear who exactly is using
Twitter within Iran, especially in English. Anecdotal evidence suggests that
the bulk of tweets are coming from “hyphenated” Iranians not actually in the
country, getting the word out to Western observers, rather than from the
protesters themselves, who favor other, less public media. This is, after
all, the country where the government once debated the death penalty for
dissident bloggers. See pictures of daily life in Iran.
Twitter isn’t a magic bullet against dictators. As tempting as it is to
think of the service as a purely anarchic weapon of the masses, too distributed to be
stoppable, it would be theoretically feasible for the government to shut it
down, according to James Cowie, CTO of Renesys, a company that collects data
on the status of the Internet in real-time. While Iran has a rich and
diverse Internet culture, data traffic into and out of Iran passes through a very
small number of channels. It’s technically relatively trivial for the state
to take control of those choke-points and block IP addresses delivering tweets
through them. The SMS network is even more centralized and structured than
the Internet, and hence even easier to censor.
But there are counter-counter-measures to this kind of censorship.
Sympathetic observers outside Iran have set up “proxies,” servers that relay Twitter
content into Iran through network addresses that haven’t been blocked yet.
When the Iranian authorities discover such a proxy, they block it too. It’s
an arms race crossed with whack-a-mole. Protesters are also organizing
denial-of-service attacks against government websites coordinated efforts
to shut down their servers by flooding them with traffic.
Rumors of the Iranian authorities tampering with Twitter traffic are
rampant. But very little hard data is available, and so far it’s not clear that
they’ve throttled Twitter completely. Why not is a matter of great speculation. It’s
quite possible that the government finds Twitter useful as a way of
monitoring protesters, gathering data on them and even tracking them down. There are
also signs that the Iranian government may be infiltrating the Twitter network
itself, manipulating it to its own advantage. This tweet went out over the
network earlier today, and was itself re-tweeted over 200 times:
DO NOT RT anything U read from “NEW” tweeters, gvmt spreading misinfo
Twitter didn’t start the protests in Iran, nor did it make them possible.
But there’s no question that it emboldened the protesters, reinforced their
conviction that they were not alone, and engaged populations outside Iran in
an emotional, immediate way that was never possible beforehand. President
Ahmadinejad who happened to visit Russia on Tuesday now finds himself in
a court of world opinion where even Khruschev never had to stand trial.
Totalitarian governments rule by brute force, but also because they control
the consensus world-view of those they rule. Tyranny, in other words, is a
monologue. But as long as Twitter is up and running, there’s no such thing.
See TIME’s covers from the 1979 Islamic revolution.
See pictures of Iran’s response to the election results on LIFE.com.