Why Iran's Twitter revolution is unique
The government's tight control of the Internet has spawned a generation adept at circumventing cyber roadblocks, making the country ripe for a technology–driven protest movement.
Before Iran, there was Moldova, which had its own (unsuccessful) "Twitter Revolution" back in April, when young activists used online tools to coordinate protests against the country's dubiously reelected Communist government. In Egypt, meanwhile, a new generation of activists has come to embrace Facebook and Internet-based social networking applications to protest (again, mostly unsuccessfully) their repressive government.Skip to next paragraph
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But new-media experts say that Iran's civil resistance movement is unique because the government's tight control of media and the Internet has spawned a generation adept at circumventing cyber roadblocks, making the country ripe for a technology–driven protest movement.
"This is a country where you have tens of thousands of bloggers, and these bloggers have been in a situation where the Internet has been filtered since 2004. Anyone worth their salt knows how to find an open proxy [to get around government firewalls and filters], knows how to work around censorship," says Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Cambridge, Mass. "The Iranian government, by filtering the Internet for so long, has actually trained a cadre of people who really know who to get around censorship."
As the government has cracked down on everything from cellphone service to Facebook, Twitter has emerged as the most powerful way to disseminate photos, organize protests, and describe street scenes in the aftermath of the contested June 12 election. Iranians' reliance on the social-networking tool has elevated it from a banal way to update one's friends in 140-character bursts to an agent for historic changes in the Islamic Republic.
Iran exercises strict control of both the Internet and the mainstream media. In its 2007 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 166th of 169 countries, worse than authoritarian regimes such as Burma and Cuba, and only better than Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea.
And while 35 percent of Iranians use the Internet – considerably higher than the Middle East average of 26 percent – the Iranian government operates what has been described as one of the most extensive filtering systems in the world.
"Thinking that technology can only help pro-democracy protestors is naïve," says Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute studying the impact of new media in authoritarian states. "Are Ahmedinejad's supporters using technology to also mobilize? I'm sure of that."
Hamid Tehrani of Global Voices Online, a website that aggregates the work of bloggers from around the world, says Iranian officials may have contributed to rising power of social networking tools by temporarily lifting some of the filtering restrictions on them in recent months, apparently in an effort put on a friendly and democratic face in the run up to the elections.