The Revolution Will Be Microblogged: Iran's Election and the Power of Twitter - Technologist
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The Revolution Will Be Microblogged: Iran's Election and the Power of Twitter

The events that have unfolded in Iran following the contested presidential election have transfixed the world.  Much of the information that has come out of (and into) the country has traveled over social media services as a result of censorship and blocking of communications systems by the government. 

The crisis in Iran has allowed Twitter, the microblogging service, to mature into a legitimate and important communication tool.  Twitter has played such a prominent role in allowing mobilization and documentation of the Iranian opposition that the US State Department at one point even asked the company to put off a scheduled maintenance so that Iranians could continue using the service.
Iconic images and videos, such as the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan (warning: the video is graphic and disturbing), have flooded out of Iran and the protesters have used the service to organize rallies and spread information.  Twitter has also been instrumental in allowing outsiders to read real-time reports about the events in Iran, all despite the fact that the government has actively attempted to block communication of the turmoil to the outside world.

Twitter has become the default method of communication about the Iranian situation because of one primary characteristic: openness.  Despite the fact that the government has blocked the Twitter site itself, there are many websites that utilize the Twitter Application Programming Interface (API) and allow users to read others' tweets and post their own.  The Iranian authorities don't always know about these sites in order to block them, which allows Iranian citizens to continue to tweet about the events as they occur.

Those interested in following the unfolding events or tweeting about something related to the Iranian election can also utilize another feature of Twitter, called hashtags, in order to read reports on the election and direct their comments to the right conversation.  A hashtag is basically a keyword with a hash symbol in front of it.  People place hashtags in their tweets in order to make it easier for others to locate posts on a particular topic, and users of the Twitter search function can search for those hashtags in order to easily find the conversation threads they're after.

For example, the two most popular hashtags used to identify a tweet about the Iran election are #iranelection and #gr88.  A message using one of those hashtags might look something like this: "more protests in the streets of Tehran #iranelection".

Twitter has definitely had an overall positive influence in the midst of the Iranian tragedy, but there is also a possibility that the site could become a tool for the security forces to track down and suppress those posting to the service.  Since data on the internet can live forever, and since people communicating over the internet leave traces that they might not be aware of, those Iranians using Twitter should be cautious, lest they inadvertently identify themselves or those around them as members of the opposition protest movement.

The success of Twitter in keeping communication flowing in and out of Iran despite the governments attempts at censorship reveals that technology can be a powerful tool against oppressive regimes.  The metadata about tweets and the publicity of the messages can also create danger for those actively using the service to spread news and organize political protests, however.  Like most things in life, Twitter is a double edge sword that, when used properly, can be a great benefit.  When used carelessly, however, it can lead to woe and misfortune.

Regimes like those in China and Iran try very hard to control what their citizens see and do online.  Some argue that this violates the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by several international treaties, as well as the laws governing international trade.  Tools like Twitter that are difficult for the regimes to control can help to keep citizens of the countries connected to the outside world, and give them a voice when the government tries to silence them. This in turn can help ensure that all individuals can enjoy the rights guaranteed to them under international law.

See Also:

Tyranny's new nightmare: Twitter (LA Times)
Cyberwar guide for Iran elections (Boing Boing)
HOW TO: Track Iran Election with Twitter and Social Media (Mashable)
Unrest in Iran raises profile for Twitter (MercuryNews.com)