An interesting thing happened this month. Iran held an election. The results doubious as they may have seemed to the outside world, provoked a furious anger from many Iranians. Even more interesting was the preceding days after the annunciation of Ahmadinejad as the winner of the election on the 13th of June.
Civil unrest consumed the streets with images of protests on the streets of Tehran. Homes were smashed, buildings burned and protestors beaten. Then, nothing. Iranian officials pulled the plug on all international media coverage. All foreign press was confined to observing state television in their offices. The outside world was shut out from all events within Iran. But as a leaky vessel repaired will always seep, information started to trickle through other less conventional media outlets.
Social networking site, Twitter, became a safe harbour for Iranians, whose mobile phones, instant messengers and email accounts were being blocked by the Iranian authorities. Twitter stepped up as the outside world’s primary, first hand, account of what was going on in Iran behind the media blackout curtain.
Not since the American presidential election in 2008 has Twitter been used to such powerful political effect. Barack Obama and Hiliary Clinton both utilising the social ticker to keep followers up to date on their campaign trail. However, this time instead of being the voice of individuals trying to convince their prospective publics, it has become the voice of a silenced public trying to speak out against its government.
Bloggers on Twitter posted their 140 character bulletins appended with a tag (hashtag) labelled #iranelection or #gr88 so to identify themselves with the cause. Largely used by pro-Ahmadinejad supporters who warn fellow users of ‘lies’ being spread by other Twitter users. Who could simply be pro-Mousavi. You can quickly see what a minefield this becomes in the realm of Internet anonymity. Incredibly fast #iranelection became the number one ranking trend on the Twitter site, with over 7000 tweets concerning the subject being posted every hour.
As foreign camera crews were not permitted on the streets, normal Iranians became international news cameramen recording incidents on their mobile phones. Graphic scenes of protesters being beaten and barracks being attacked by the crowds all made their way onto Youtube. It became in effect a bricolage news network, strewn together by what amateur footage was being uploaded with whatever tweets were coming from the Iranian bloggers. It was live, instantaneous and raw.
The larger news outlets such as Sky and CNN caught onto Twitter as a useful tool of infiltrating the streets of Tehran where their cameras could not go and started broadcasting screengrabs of the site.
“Twitter is providing better coverage than CNN at the moment.” Slashdot.com
This was of more harm than good, displaying users screen names, which only served to put them at risk by exposing them to Iranian authorities. Twitter users, on the site itself, were urged to change their user icon to green and timezone to Tehran (GMT +3.00) to help hide the bloggers in Iran, under a flurry of new bloggers all suddenly located ‘in Tehran’. Leaving authorities not able to see the wood for the trees. One blogger pleaded:
Everyone please change your Twitter location to Tehran and timezone to +3:00 GMT Tehran, help create noise to protect our friends!!
So will this have any effect on affairs within Iran? Probably not. The point is that the Internet has helped a people defy a government, a government that is trying to suppress information. Such is the importance of the information leaking out of Iran through Twitter that the US State Dept requested Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance to allow information to continue to be broadcast out of Iran.
It’s clear to see that Twitter has played a pivotal role in the Iranian election. It evolved from it’s original social networking purpose and became a legitimate and solitary news source out of Iran. This is an big step for Social Networking a step towards becoming a tool of #SocialChange.