Archive for the ‘Iran’ Tag

Hacking the Middle East

Simplistic pronouncements about the role of social media in stirring uprisings and toppling dictators have by now, thankfully, seemed to die down. That Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital tools have been important to the historic upheaval in the Middle East is an unimpeachable fact. And a closer look at how those tools played a part is more than just interesting — it may offer clues to major social and political movements of the future.

A gathering last week in San Francisco organized by Hacks/Hackers and HackDemocracy showcased some illuminating work on the subject. Stanford computer scientist Rio Akasaka shared an animation he made showing worldwide Twitter activity from Feb. 7 to 14 that used the hashtag #Egypt. Unsurprisingly, the United States and Europe figure most prominently in the dynamic constellation, but there was also a climactic surge across the Middle East, South Asia and South America as news spread on Feb. 11 that Hosni Mubarak no longer held power:

Each dot on the map, Akasaka said, represents a single tweet; at the peak of activity for #Egypt, he said, there were as many as 6,000 per minute.

After the Mubarak regime all but shut down the Internet in Egypt at the end of January, activists moved to work around the technological assault. Egyptians relied even more on mobile phones to connect to the outer world, said Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of Al Jazeera English, in some cases texting and emailing trusted contacts elsewhere in the Middle East or Europe who would disseminate the info via Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter joined forces to launch speak2tweet, a service that helped Egyptian citizens keep information flowing online by way of voicemails.

Egyptian-born technology entrepreneur Amir Khella said that the R.N.N news hub on Facebook, which reportedly saw a veritable explosion of page views in late January, was the best “hack” he’d seen among any related to the revolution. The R.N.N page pulled together information via text messages, phone calls and emails from people witnessing various events on the ground. R.N.N would crosscheck multiple reports from the same approximate time and location, Khella said, in order to separate fact from rumor. (Who exactly is behind R.N.N remains unclear, he later told me.) It was a nimble kind of crowdsourcing born of the crisis.

No doubt there have been other useful applications of digital technology during this period of seismic change in the Middle East, and surely more will spring up in the months ahead. It’s also important not to overstate their role, and to examine how the Internet has been used nefariously by oppressive regimes.

Maybe in part it’s because the earlier proliferation of Facebook and Twitter in American culture was marked by some frivolity that writers such as Malcolm Gladwell haughtily dismissed them as a sideshow in the context of revolutions. (See Matthew Ingram for a sharp take on how Gladwell went astray.) But as the speakers last week in San Francisco reiterated, a great number of people in the Arab world are using them, and not primarily to muse about what they ate for lunch. Under pressure from the U.S. government, executives at Facebook and Twitter have made moves to keep their platforms viable for activists, and it’s doubtful that their motivations to do so were solely capitalistic.

“We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real-world activism,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, in a wide-ranging speech about Internet freedom. She later continued: “The dramatic increase in internet users during the past 10 years has been remarkable to witness. But that was just the opening act. In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion people will join the network. It is those users who will decide the future.”

WikiLeaks might make America safer

[Updates to this post, through Monday Dec. 13, follow below.]

When the “Afghan war logs” became public earlier this year, I focused on WikiLeaks from the standpoint of its huge impact on the media. The ongoing release of a quarter million State Department cables has since unleashed a torrent of hot debate about government secrecy and whether Julian Assange’s organization is a force for good or evil.

Like many others, I’ve marinated myself in related articles and commentary over the last week but remain ambivalent about some of the complex moral issues involved. I’ve also been pondering a question that seems noticeably absent from the discussion: Could it be that WikiLeaks is actually the best thing in a long time to afflict U.S. national security?

The cacophonous phenomenon on the world’s front pages has been a grand wake-up call — the rise of cyberwar is no longer a matter of theory. It’s here whether you believe Assange is an enemy or a hero. If it proves true that a low-level Army analyst was able to get his hands on such a colossal amount of sensitive documents, what does that say about Pentagon preparedness for the security challenges of the proliferating information age?

So far some contents of “cablegate” itself have informed our view of just how serious an issue this is. As the Times reported on Sunday, “repeated and often successful hacking attacks from China on the United States government, private enterprises and Western allies” have been taking place since as far back as 2002. One previously unreported attack “yielded more than 50 megabytes of e-mails and a complete list of user names and passwords from an American government agency.”

The China cables also show the fire with which WikiLeaks plays; you get the sense that if some of the redacted names were revealed, it could potentially be disastrous, both to individuals involved and to U.S. intelligence gathering.

It’s noteworthy that the Obama administration’s assessment of the damage from WikiLeaks has consistently been inconsistent. The latest round has Attorney General Eric Holder saying that “national security of the United States has been put at risk,” while Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that concerns about potential harm are “significantly overwrought” and that the disclosures will have a “fairly modest” impact on foreign policy. The mixed message would seem to suggest that the U.S. government yet lacks a coherent approach to safeguarding the nation’s information infrastructure.

In the later years of the Bush administration, the federal government began to prioritize cyberwar, a focus continued by the Obama administration. But today there are the troubling, all too familiar signs of unpreparedness, agency turf wars and legal muddle. The Pentagon’s Cyber Command seeks to expand its powers aggressively and is, not coincidentally, publicizing that fact now. According to the Washington Post, its general in charge recently testified to Congress that he could not adequately defend the country against cyber-attack because it “is not my mission to defend today the entire nation.” If an adversary attacked power grids, he said, a defensive effort would “rely heavily on commercial industry.” Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair warned, “This infuriating business about who’s in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.”

By some accounts the world hasn’t seen anything yet in terms of the looming dangers of cyberwar. An attack could cripple America, argues former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, striking everything from train routes and electrical grids to bank data and medical records.

WikiLeaks over the last few months, then, may have exposed U.S. government vulnerability in an alarmingly useful way, if one not much in line with Assange’s ideas about undermining state power. You can bet it has lit a serious fire under officials involved with the nation’s cybersecurity, who now must be working that much more intensively to plug any leaks in the ship of state and build up defenses against future attacks. They are, of course, likely toiling in secrecy. For now, anyway.

UPDATE: On the eve of his arrest in London, Assange publishes an article in The Australian: “Don’t shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths.” He opens with a quote from Rupert Murdoch: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”

UPDATE 12/8/10: Hackers sympathetic to Assange and WikiLeaks have launched a series of cyberattacks in recent days, targeting MasterCard, PayPal and a Swiss bank. (Could Twitter be next?) The Guardian looks into the “shadowy group” allegedly behind the attacks:

A 22-year-old spokesman, who wished to be known only as “Coldblood”, told the Guardian that the group – which is about a thousand strong – is “quite a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals” and wish to be a force for “chaotic good”.

There is no real command structure in the group, the London-based spokesman said, while most of its members are teenagers who are “trying to make an impact on what happens with the limited knowledge they have”. But others are parents, IT professionals and people who happen to have time – and resources – on their hands.

It’s really too bad that Stieg Larsson isn’t still around to witness all this.

Also: Some incisive comments at the cross-posted version of my piece on MoJo from Matthew Rotando on the implications of escalating cyberwar.

And: A great primer on WikiLeaks and roundup of coverage from Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.

UPDATE 12/13/10: The WikiLeaks saga itself continues to ratchet up the potential for cyberwar. With a secret grand jury in Virginia reportedly now considering criminal charges against Assange, a headline in today’s Daily Mail raises the specter of retribution for Assange’s potential extradition: “Britain on cyber warfare alert as Whitehall prepares for WikiLeaks revenge attacks on Government website, it reads. Apparently “bank details of taxpayers and benefits claimants” could be at risk.

Stateside, meanwhile, the Times’ Scott Shane reports movement on the cyberwar front: “Whether or not the Obama administration tries to prosecute those who disseminated the information, it is determined to use technology to preserve its secrets. The Defense Department is scaling back information sharing, which its leaders believe went too far after information hoarding was blamed for the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot. The department has also stripped CD and DVD recorders from its computers; it is redesigning security systems to require two people, not one, to move large amounts of information from a classified computer to an unclassified one; and it is installing software to detect downloads of unusual size.”

“Bluetoothing” Iran’s revolution

Though it’s grabbing fewer headlines these days, the upheaval in Tehran that began last summer continues to simmer. Apparently the Obama administration has some evolving ideas about how to exploit the domestic dissatisfaction, which has been rising, along with the local price of tomatoes, for quite some time. How long can Ahmadinejad hold on?

I finally had a chance to read Nazila Fathi’s recent essay about her experiences reporting from, and then fleeing from, Iran, where she’d been working for the New York Times. It’s chilling at turns, but also uplifting, particularly with its focus on the regime-busting role that technology has played in the historic unrest. Last summer I focused at length here on the unprecedented ways in which digital technology was shaping events from Tehran to Tiananmen Square. With events in Iran, Twitter suddenly had gone from trendy social networking toy to subversive diplomatic tool square on the State Department’s radar. But until reading Fathi’s essay I hadn’t known about another fascinating technological application in the fight—the use of Bluetooth by dissidents to dodge the crackdown. As Fathi writes of Iran’s continuing unrest in December:

Last month, during and after the funeral of the reformist Grand Ayatollah Hossain Ali Montazeri, one of the demonstrators’ most useful tools was the Bluetooth short-range radio signal that Americans use mainly to link a cellphone to an earpiece, or a printer to a laptop. Long ago, Iranian dissidents discovered that Bluetooth can as easily link cellphones to each other in a crowd. And that made “Bluetooth” a verb in Iran: a way to turn citizen reportage instantly viral. A protester Bluetooths a video clip to others nearby, and they do the same. Suddenly, if the authorities want to keep the image from escaping the scene, they must confiscate hundreds or thousands of phones and cameras.

The authorities have tried to fight back against such techniques and the Internet itself, but have fallen short. In November they announced that a new police unit, the “cyber-army,” would sweep the Web of dissent. It blocked Twitter feeds for a few hours in December, and an opposition Web site. But other blogs and Web sites mushroomed faster than the government could keep up.

Also be sure not to miss Frontline’s compelling documentary on the infamous killing of Neda Agha-Soltan.

UPDATE, 1/28/10: According to the New York Times, Iran reportedly has just executed two men in connection with the election protests. Nine others have been condemned to death for same.

The killing of Neda

The new documentary “A Death in Tehran” continues the stellar investigative work of Frontline, casting light on the fate of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose murder during Iran’s election chaos last summer commanded historic attention. On the PBS/Frontline web site you can watch the documentary in its entirety. It’s well worth the time. The film illuminates the circumstances of the shooting and its aftermath through extensive use of amateur video from the street protests and interviews with people close to Neda — including the doctor who tried to save her as she quickly bled to death on the street.

The chilling footage of Neda’s death in late June zipped around the globe on an unprecedented digital wave, instantly making hers the face of the rising reformist movement in Iran. One compelling segment of the documentary details how the Iranian hardliners reacted to this threat against their grip on power.

In response to the international outcry over Neda’s death — including President Obama’s confirmation that he’d seen the “heartbreaking” video on YouTube — the regime set about attempting to rewrite the story, pointing a finger at the CIA and outside agitators, the same forces they blamed for the mass street protests and allegations of vote rigging that led to the greatest upheaval in Iran since the revolution of 1979.

The film also uncovers some remarkable footage of Neda’s killer, “a member of the Basij militia who’d been brought into Tehran by the regime’s Revolutionary Guards to stamp out the ‘Green Revolution.’” In an interview with Frontline, Arash Hejazi, the doctor who tried to save Neda as she lay dying in the street, describes watching the crowd’s reaction to the man who had fatally shot her. “They started to discuss what to do with him,” Hejazi recalls. “They grabbed his wallet, took out his ID card and started shouting, ‘He is a Basiji member; he is one of them,’ and started swearing and cursing him, and he was begging for people not to harm him or kill him.”

Incredibly, the killer walked. “They believed the police wouldn’t do anything to him as the Basiji are really powerful and he would have easily have got away,” Hejazi says, “so in all of the chaos they decided to release him.”

The documentary describes how the regime sought further to cover up a brutal crackdown: “The Iranian government admits 11 protesters were killed on June 20, but doctors from three Tehran hospitals confirmed at least 34 deaths. Other bodies were buried by security forces without first being identified.”

New York Times blogger Robert Mackey, who has cranked out much excellent coverage of the fallout from the Iranian election, has more here. In late June, I wrote extensively about the unprecedented role digital media played during the upheaval on the streets of Tehran; that’s available here.

Moonwalk for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The embattled Iranian regime couldn’t have dreamed up a better reprieve from scrutiny than the worldwide media frenzy over Michael Jackson’s death, only just getting underway.

How much Jackson coverage will be too much? (Whatever that is, we’re likely to find out.) His death is tragic but unsurprising given his condition in recent years. A great sadness for his family, friends and fans — and arguably a great relief, as the world can finally stop fixating on the downtempo horror show of misery and self-mutilation, and instead remember Jackson for the extraordinary music and artistry he gave, particularly in his earlier days.

youngMJ

Indeed, the postmortem coverage will be ceaseless for days to come, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sham of a reelection and attendant brutality recedes from the headlines. But what continues unfolding in Iran remains worthy of top billing. Prospects for the beginnings of rapprochement with the Obama administration now appear to be on ice. The regime is claiming the election was fraud-free. (The voting populations of various Iranian towns must have swelled overnight.) Clerics close to Ayatollah Khamenei are calling for dissidents to be punished ruthlessly and savagely. Veteran journalists anticipate that the country’s media lockdown will continue for a long time. (NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel: “We’re openly being called the instigators of a revolt.” More details here on the media crackdown.)

mahmoud_ahmadinejadDecentralized digital communications may become ever more critical to publicizing what’s transpiring inside Iran. As of Friday afternoon Michael Jackson commanded the top three slots for Twitter hashtags (#MJ’s; #RIP Mj; #michaeljackson), but Iran was still trending at fifth and sixth (#Iran; #iranelection). Also of note: The UK blogger whose Iran cyberwar guide mysteriously vanished last week is back online and has a second installment, an interesting rundown for tech and politics junkies alike. Meanwhile, this recently posted mash-up evokes the strange confluence of the historical moment, setting images from the Iranian election upheaval (some of them graphically disturbing) to Jackson’s controversial song “They Don’t Care About Us.”

Black clouds over Tehran

There will be blood — much more of it, if need be — was the implicit message from Ayatollah Khamenei at Friday prayers in Tehran. “Struggling on the streets after elections is not acceptable,” the Iranian Supreme Leader said. “If they do not stop these actions, then any consequences will be their responsibility.”

KhameneiJune19AFP

Khamenei emphasized that the Islamic republic would never “commit treason” by manipulating votes, that the country’s legal system does not allow vote-rigging. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s large margin of victory — supposedly by 11 million votes — proved that the election could not have been fixed, Khamenei said.

Many Iranians, and people around the world, understand that’s a lie. As Stanford University’s Abbas Milani noted on CNN Thursday night, numerous towns across Iran had reported vote totals for Ahmadinejad amounting to more than 100 percent of their resident populations.

protestJune17AFP

But in Iran the fist, not the facts, likely will prevail.

batonsJune14AFP-2Neil MacFarquhar reports on the violence unleashed in Iranian cities at night since last Friday’s election, with the vigilante thugs known as Basijis beating, looting and sometimes gunning down protesters they tracked during the day. Says one Iranian exile who helped found the Revolutionary Guards during the 1979 Islamic revolution: “It is the special brigades of the Revolutionary Guards who right now, especially at night, trap young demonstrators and kill them.”

If mass protests continue, as seems almost certain, more violence will spill into broad daylight, whether or not any foreign media is left inside the country to document it.

UPDATE: The Times’ Lede blog has a source in Tehran describing the use of Twitter — apparently less instrumental in organizing street demonstrations, while “primarily being used to communicate with the outside world.”

Regarding prospects for greater violence and ultimate political outcome, Steve Clemons shares an interesting dispatch from “a well-connected Iranian internationalist” who has been in Tehran during the post-election unrest. The source describes witnessing young Mousavi supporters in the streets at night, fighting back by “hunting” Basijis. He describes them as agile “militia style” groups, including “a surprising number of girls.”

Iran election upheaval continues

Trading in their bright green for black, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched again in Iran on Thursday, urged by presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn the students killed during demonstrations earlier in the week. Photographer Saeed Kamali Dehghan documented the action for the Guardian in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini square:

Tehran-demonstrations-002 Tehran-demonstrations-007

iran(Getty/NPR)NPR’s Mike Shuster reports that members of the Basij, the feared Iranian paramilitary group, have instigated violence under cover of darkness — apparently to help justify a more forceful crackdown against the opposition movement, which by most accounts largely has remained peaceful. One eyewitness report includes a thug exploding an incendiary grenade under a car.

The extraordinary role of digital media in the upheaval remains a hot topic, now including some obligatory contrarianism from the veteran journo corps. (Any hot story in the media tends to provoke both herd-like hyperventilation and a subsequent above-the-fray backlash.) Slate’s Jack Shafer questions the noise-to-signal ratio of the gangbusters #IranElection Twitter stream and points to a potential dark side: “How long before the secret police start sending out organizational tweets — ‘We’re massing at 7 p.m. at the Hall of the People for a march to the Hall of Justice!’ — and busts everybody who shows up?”

Business Week’s Joel Schectman wonders if the “Twitter revolution” has been overblown: “Iran experts and social networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers’ ability to get people on the street.”

Sure, it’s a worthwhile reminder not to get too utopian about the empowerment of digital technology, especially as the foreign media gets pushed out of the country — but the bottom line is clear: Media control has long been a powerful, essential weapon of the Iranian regime. Twitter, Facebook and blogs increasingly are powerful forces toward neutralizing that weapon. According to Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, Iran has the highest number of bloggers per capita in the world. No matter the outcome of Iran’s historic turmoil, they will continue to be heard.

Twitter as unstoppable diplomacy in Iran

The Guardian reports an estimated half million people protesting in Tehran on Wednesday, the fifth day of unrest. Despite President Obama’s cautious posture thus far, the Iranian regime has now begun to openly blame the United States for interfering in the election and inciting upheaval. As the vulnerabilities of the regime and its Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, have become more apparent, the tactic undoubtedly is aimed at undercutting an opposition movement in a country where anti-U.S. sentiment still exerts a powerful pull. It seems to have an out-of-touch air of desperation to it — blame the ol’ Great Satan, and maybe the masses will fall back in line with renewed nationalist fervor. The problem is, those masses now see Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, presiding in the White House. (Not to mention the price of tomatoes in Tehran.)

The situation on the ground appears to be growing more ominous. According to a Reuters report from Wednesday, Mohammadreza Habibi, the senior prosecutor in the central province of Isfahan, declared that demonstrators could be executed under Islamic law. “We warn the few elements controlled by foreigners who try to disrupt domestic security by inciting individuals to destroy and to commit arson that the Islamic penal code for such individuals waging war against God is execution,” Habibi reportedly announced.

Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times.

Protesters in Tehran, June 15. (Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times)

Other dispatches from Wednesday described the regime further cracking down on digital communications. In one particular way, it’s an area where official U.S. involvement indeed appears to have been instrumental, in terms of the extraordinary role Twitter has played following the election upheaval. With the messaging network set to go offline temporarily earlier this week, the U.S. State Department stepped in. The Times reports:

On Monday afternoon, a 27-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, e-mailed the social-networking site Twitter with an unusual request: delay scheduled maintenance of its global network, which would have cut off service while Iranians were using Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests around Tehran. The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.

“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs. Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.”

The global interconnection helping to electrify Iran’s history in the making has been on display in myriad ways over the last few days. This morning I was able to zoom in on one specific example of it: After I’d written here yesterday about a UK blogger’s “#Iranelection cyberwar guide” — which soon vanished from the Web and remains missing as of Wednesday morning Pacific time — I’d also put the link out via my Twitter page. By early this morning at least one person apparently located in Tehran had read and re-tweeted it. (See tweet there with: “http://bit.ly/mfo0i #iranelection”) That quickly led to a burst of referral traffic coming to my site from that person’s Twitter feed. You can imagine the exponential spread to follow. Multiply that by millions of other blog posts and tweets, and you start to see the extraordinarily powerful picture of communication.

As I noted yesterday, there isn’t necessarily any way to verify the particular Twitter user’s location or identity — is it really some young woman, a spark in her eyes, now leaving her dorm room for the massive demonstration in Tir square? — and it’s just one little example of precisely why the Iranian regime will not be able to stem the digital tide.

UPDATE 12:30pmPDT: As K.M. Soehnlein points out, the crackdown on foreign journalists inside Iran raises a disturbing contrast. The Times surveys the latest circumstances, and it’s chilling to read. Most journalists allowed into Iran only get one-week visas, and their numbers are fast dwindling:

“Visa extensions have been denied across the board,” says Times executive editor Bill Keller, who has himself been reporting from Tehran this week. “Some reporters have considered staying on without visas, working under the radar. There are two problems with that. First, this is a fairly efficient police state; the chances of anyone eluding arrest long enough to see how the story plays out are slim. More important, in my mind, is that it puts at risk the decent, hospitable Iranians who would be needed to put us up, translate and help us get the story out.”

Many Western journalists were effectively confined to their offices on Tuesday after the information ministry forbid them to report on protests or conduct interviews outside, according to the Times. Some were told they would be arrested if they were spotted on the streets with a camera.

Jim Sciutto, an ABC News correspondent in Tehran, said the Iranian government had “run out of patience” with the televised images of protests. Until Tuesday, he told the Times by email, “we sensed there was the slightest bit of wiggle room and so we took the risk of filming on our cellphones. But now the message seems to be ‘don’t even think about it.’”

And from Keller’s dispatch above:

For a sense of what may await Iran’s discontented when there is no one around to report on it, consider Monday night in Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city and a five-hour drive from the nearest foreign TV camera. As in Tehran, large parts of the city — the squares and boulevards — were scenes of smoke and flames, tear gas, stones crashing into windows, bloodied heads.

The uprising seemed more organic than organized — groups of a few dozen merging into groups of a few hundred, converging on lines of helmeted riot police officers, chanting “Death to the dictator!”

But in Isfahan the police response seemed far tougher.

At one point, a white S.U.V. with a red ambulance-style light raced up behind a knot of protesters and smashed into them, running one over before racing a few blocks to the protection of the riot police.

It may not be much longer before a lot more blood flows.

Iran’s Twitter revolution goes global

It’s been amazing to watch it spread.

“As the embattled government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be trying to limit Internet access and communications in Iran, new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions,” reports the New York Times. “Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.”

The circuitry of the situation in Iran truly has gone global — not only is the world watching, but political and tech junkies everywhere are getting involved in the communications battle. One compelling example: A blogger in Wales, Esko Reinikainen, has posted a #iranelection cyberwar guide for beginners.

“The purpose of this guide is to help you participate constructively in the Iranian election protests through twitter,” Reinikainen says. He offers tips including how to disseminate proxy IP addresses for Iranian bloggers to use, how to help them target repressive Web sites and how to help give them cover: “change your twitter settings so that your location is TEHRAN and your time zone is GMT +3.30. Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location and timezone searches. If we all become ‘Iranians’ it becomes much harder to find them.”

IranianprotestorviaASAt the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan is keeping a running log in bold green lettering of tweets ostensibly flowing from the streets of Tehran and beyond. There isn’t really a way to judge the source or authenticity of the material. (For one thing, there are regular mentions at this point of Iranian security operatives spreading disinformation digitally; meanwhile, if Twitter users worldwide increasingly are posing as Iranians per above, how to identify the real ones?) But assuming a majority of it remains authentic, it’s fascinating reading. A sampling from Tuesday morning:


Tehran hotels under high security to stop Iranians from contacting foreign press

anyone with camera or laptop is attacked in street

i am seeing tweets about a lot of disturbances, arrests, violence in Shahrak Gharb, any reports?

we hear 1dead in shiraz, livefire used in other cities RT

Very scared, I was talkin to myuncle in shiraz and he was so paranoid.

If you hear the forces talking in arabic..BE CAREFUL..these guys are imported in, they are not affraid of suicide bombing and killing

Police the reason of insecurity; Dead students buried by profs

Basij attacking Shiraz and Mashad universities, Shiraz U’s dean resigned

some student killed by the 4a blast in Babol Univ’s dorms; surrounded by Basij forces

Militia still attacking people in sidestreets but main roads are peaceful marchers.

All last night we hear shooting accross Tehran – everyone is full of rumours and stories – many arrests in night

stay safe and I will RT anything you write! The world is watching and history is being made–we bear witness!

UPDATE – 6/16/09, 9:55amPDT: Esko Reinikainen’s blog apparently is now having technical problems — overloaded with traffic, perhaps, or blocked or otherwise shut down. The above link currently leads to an “Account Suspended” page at Justhost.com. Unclear if or when his site will be back up. Reading the comments section on his page earlier this morning, I noted that his “cyberwar guide” had already been linked and copied widely, including translations in Spanish and German. I was working quickly and didn’t think to grab the whole thing, unfortunately. Reinikainen himself had warned of the potential for his site to go down, and encouraged copying it.

UPDATE 2: Wired’s Noah Shachtman digs into the complexities of the battle online, and has more of the copy from Reinikainen’s missing blog post. How all of this ultimately shapes events in Iran remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt about the rising potential of digital communications for political movements, from Tehran to Tiananmen.

Digital revolution from Tehran to Tiananmen Square

June 2009 could be a big month for democracy on the world stage, with digital technology playing no small part.

With a landmark speech in Cairo on Thursday, Barack Obama will continue his quest to connect with the Muslim world and repair the grave damage done to U.S. standing under George W. Bush. It remains to be seen how much he might also press for government reform by Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is considered a crucial U.S. ally in the Middle East, but more light has been shed on its dark human rights record particularly since 2007, when a video circulated on the Internet showed a man being sodomized with a stick in a Cairo police station.

In Iran later this month, the 10th presidential election could shake things up significantly for a country whose own population is very much displeased with life under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime has failed to suppress the use of Facebook and Twitter on behalf of the reformist movement.

This week also brings the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where on June 4, 1989, thousands of Chinese pro-democracy protesters were wounded and killed at the hands of the Chinese army. One unknown man, instantly made an indelible historical figure, temporarily halted the killing machine in its tracks.

Tiananmen

The iconic image of him will again saturate media around the globe in the days to come. (Several versions of it were captured by photojournalists in the vicinity then; the above was taken by Stuart Franklin.) To this day the identity and fate of the so-called Tank Man, who was whisked away by Chinese agents to end the extraordinary standoff, are unknown. (For more, watch this fascinating 2006 documentary, “The Tank Man,” from Frontline.) In the aftermath, the Chinese government maintained that “not one person” was killed in Tiananmen Square, and has depicted the uprising as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” ever since. As author Yu Hua underscored in an essay this weekend titled “China’s Forgotten Revolution,” today the event is little known to the nation’s youth.

This is the first time I am writing about Tiananmen Square. I am telling my story now because 20 years later — the anniversary is June 4 — two facts have become more apparent. The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people’s political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.

Twenty years later, hopefully the above image and the truth about its bloody context will percolate widely among China’s younger generations. Could the explosive spread of the Internet be the key?

In terms of state media control, China in some ways is a very different place today than even just a few years ago, according to The Washington Note’s Steve Clemons. Following what he describes as a “very candid” diplomatic meeting recently, as well as some guidance from one unnamed Chinese youth, Clemons shared insight about the limitations the Chinese government faces in trying to control an uncontrollable force:

In fact, this young person walking through Internet access issues with me said that Chinese young people can essentially access anything that the government might try and does block. This person who works in international affairs says that the ability of the Chinese government to significantly control access to web-based content is quickly eroding.

And as a result of very interesting and candid discussions with the Vice Minister of the State Council Information Office, Qian Xiaoqian, I believe that many Chinese government officials know that the practice of blocking this site or that is undergoing significant change or reform.

At the end of 2008 China was home to nearly 300 million “netizens,” or regular Internet users, with 162 million blogs and 117 million mobile Internet users, according to Clemons. By the end of this month, Chinese authorities predict another 20 percent jump in those figures.

“Terminals are everywhere,” Clemons says. “The newspapers are actually full of stories about people critiquing government officials, standards, building and infrastructure quality. It’s fascinating — not perfect. I do get the sense that political entrepreneurship is mostly a non-starter here, but even on that front, I have found several key cases where even that form of self-censorship is changing for the better.”

A very relative assessment, of course — seemingly still plenty far from the day when what happened at Tiananmen Square is understood widely across China. But amid the continuing technological revolution, that day could be on the horizon.

UPDATE 6/2/09: From photo sharing on Flickr.com to BBC television, the Chinese government now has a sweeping effort underway to enforce a media blackout of anything revealing the Tiananmen uprising 20 years ago. “The measures came as the authorities tried to close all avenues of dissent ahead of Thursday’s anniversary, placing prominent critics under house arrest and banning newspaper from making any mention of the pro-democracy protests,” reports the Telegraph. “The co-ordinated internet ‘takedown’ occurred at 5pm local time (10am GMT) on Tuesday as a broad range of websites suddenly became unavailable to Chinese internet users.”

Tiananmen2 blackout

But the evolving digital realm apparently is enabling at least some breakthrough: “Twitter users found alternative outlets in rival providers to evade the censors.”

More on the Twitter aspect from the Guardian.

On Mark Bowden’s NYT takedown

The so-called crisis in the news industry sure has generated some sensational stories of late. “American journalism is in a period of terror,” announces Mark Bowden in a tome of an article appearing in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Mostly a deft hatchet job on Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, Bowden’s piece sent the media cognoscenti into a tizzy, although nobody seems to have noticed its one truly illuminating segment.

Photo illustration by Vanity Fair.

Photo illustration from Vanity Fair.

Even the mighty Times is facing financial peril these days, and Bowden’s premise is that the newspaper scion “has steered his inheritance into a ditch.” He abuses tools of the trade to help suggest his case. As one unnamed “industry analyst” tells us, “Arthur has made some bad decisions, but so has everyone else in the business. Nobody has figured out what to do.” Earth shattering. Perhaps Bowden should pick up a copy of the Times and read Clark Hoyt on the suitable use of anonymous sources. For a substantive take on contemporary debacles across the business, check out this recent piece by Daniel Gross.

In fact, I’m a big fan of Bowden’s. Right now I happen to be reading his 2006 book “Guests of the Ayatollah,” a riveting account of the Iran hostage crisis. Particularly in the realm of national security, few reporters are as exhaustive, persuasive — and downright exciting to read — as him.

On the media, not so much. There he has tended toward the self-involved, maybe a particular pitfall for great reporters covering their own vocation. (See the opening line of the Sulzberger article, which zooms in directly on… Bowden himself, as he receives a phone call from Sulzberger: “I was in a taxi on a wet winter day in Manhattan three years ago…” Especially telling, I think, given that in another recent piece orbiting the news business, a profile of David Simon, Bowden also wrote himself prominently into the narrative.) The Vanity Fair article is exquisitely timed with the accelerating upheaval in the newspaper industry, and reads mostly like, well, a salacious, insider-y Vanity Fair article.

And yet, buried deep in the 11,500 words is one of the best analogies I’ve encountered anywhere conveying the potential for digital journalism:

When the motion-picture camera was invented, many early filmmakers simply recorded stage plays, as if the camera’s value was just to preserve the theatrical performance and enlarge its audience. To be sure, this alone was a significant change. But the true pioneers realized that the camera was more revolutionary than that. It freed them from the confines of a theater. Audiences could be transported anywhere. To tell stories with pictures, and then with sound, directors developed a whole new language, using lighting and camera angles, close-ups and panoramas, to heighten drama and suspense. They could make an audience laugh by speeding up the action, or make it cry or quake by slowing it down. In short, the motion-picture camera was an entirely new tool for storytelling.

Bowden uses the comparison in the service of whacking Sulzberger — but it also points directly to a broader stagnation in media companies’ use of the digital platform. There is experimentation going on, but often without much imagination: Digital video clips are all the rage? OK, we’ll put reporters on camera describing the stories they’ve just published! Online communities and reader interactivity are the latest buzz? OK, we’ll feature the shouting matches in our comments threads as actual news!

The rising multimedia and publishing capabilities of the digital realm are charged with promise, and demand deeper thinking about their optimal use. With any given subject, which digital tools are most effective for gathering information and telling the story? How can the information-rich ecosystem of the Web enhance the knowledge gained? What new ways are there to produce reliable, authoritative and compelling content, taking maximum advantage of a decentralized and participatory technology like no other we’ve ever known?

Soon enough we may all be getting our news on a kind of flexible digital paper. The possibilities for what it could contain are big, and they’re just beginning.

UPDATE: Mark Bowden responds.

Obama’s next epic crisis on the horizon

Sure, the Dow is hitting new lows and the economic meltdown is looking pretty damn frightening. (If the recent flood of headlines hasn’t made you want to hide in a hole, just read Paul Krugman’s mostly despairing analysis today.) But for the new president the trouble is only just beginning, as dark clouds gather to the east. Iran, it seems, is accelerating down a path toward nuclear weapons. That’s troubling in its own right — but far more so when adding to the mix a new right-wing government in Israel, the possibility of which looks imminent as hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu gains an edge in the country’s close election.

In late 2007, my friend and fellow journalist Gregory Levey took an in-depth look at Netanyahu’s political resurgence and the regional conflict that potentially could be unleashed if he returned to power. (This would be his second time as prime minister, having served from 1996-1999.) For anyone in the Israel peace camp, it would be an understatement to say that the prospect did not bode well. And now Iran may be even closer to being perceived truly as an immediate and existential threat. So while President Obama, admirably, has been signaling interest in a new era of diplomacy with the Iranians, he soon may be facing a much more dangerous brew in the Middle East.

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