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.

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5 comments so far

  1. K.M. Soehnlein on

    I fear that it becomes easier to stem the digital tide once all the foreign mainstream journalists are expelled from the country: http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/17/in-iran-fewer-journalists-each-day/

    Both are necessary to keep “the whole world watching.”

  2. markfollman on

    Absolutely. Thanks for the link — I’ve just added from it with an update to the post.

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