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.
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.
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.
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)