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.

A woman wearing an Iranian flag uses a mobile phone on the streets of Tehran on Tuesday.

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.

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.

Only N. Korea, Eritrea, and Turkmenistan do worse

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.

"Facebook, YouTube and blogs were very important during the election campaign," says Mr. Tehrani, the Brussels-based Iran editor for Global Voices.

"Maybe they didn't forecast the consequences of easing up on the social networking applications. Now people have a very strong platform. They got used to using these tools."

Technology is only a tool; the strategy is what matters

Some experts, though, warn about overstating the role that new media and technology can play in organizing a successful protest movement.

In the Molodovan case, although Twitter and other new-media technologies might have helped in organizing protests against the country's rulers, the movement fizzled quickly. On the other hand, although the successful 2004 Orange Revolution was helped along by the use of the Internet and mobile phone text messaging, a Berkman Center study found that: "the Orange Revolution was largely made possible by savvy activists and journalists willing to take risks to improve their country."

"You have to be careful about not being too enamored about technology," says Peter Ackerman, founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington. "It's sexy and it's fun and we can relate to it, but unless there's a strategy for creating loyalty shifts to the other side ... and a set of goals everyone can unify around, you're not going to get to where you need to be."

But while he cautions that it would be incorrect to credit Twitter and other new media with sparking the mass protests in Iran, Ackerman does see them as playing an enabling role to a movement that he says could ultimately be successful – particularly as it moves outside Tehran.

Why is Twitter so powerful? It's 'half-baked'.

As Iran approaches the one-week mark of election, the Iranian authorities seem intent on reasserting their control over the Internet. Iran's Revolutionary Guard on Wednesday warned that anyone using sites such as Twitter for political purposes would be subject to retribution.

"We warn those who propagate riots and spread rumors that our legal action against them will cost them dearly," a statement from the military force on Wednesday said.

But technology experts say that completely blocking Twitter, whose open-ended design allows for its messages to be broadcast from various sources, will be very difficult.

"The very fact that Twitter itself is half-baked, coupled with its designers' willingness to let anyone build on top of it to finish baking it ... is what makes it so powerful," Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center, recently wrote on his blog.

"And with so many ways to get those tweets there and back without the user needing twitter.com, it's far more naturally censorship resistant than most other Web sites. Less really is more."

Globalizing a local struggle

Mr. Zuckerman of the Berkman Center says the value of Twitter and social networking tools may be to push a domestic agenda onto the world stage.

"I think social media at this point is most useful at making that what is a local struggle become a global struggle. I think that is what is happening here," hesays.

"It is helping people globally feel solidarity and it's keeping international attention on what's happening. It's giving people a sense of involvement that they otherwise wouldn't have, and I think that's very important."

With Internet access in Iran now sometimes so slow and unreliable – due to a combination of heavy usage and government interference – as to be almost useless, Tehrani – the Global Voices editor – says Iranians may ultimately have to fall back on older technologies to do their organizing.

"In the end, I think the most important thing is like what happened in the 1979 revolution: person-to-person communication," he says.

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