On 13 June the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner of Iran’s presidential election, with a reported 64% of the national vote. His nearest rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, won (according to official figures) just under 34%. Mousavi and his followers immediately disputed the results; and widespread protests mushroomed throughout Iran, of a size and nature not seen since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As the protests grew in strength, the Iranian authorities cracked down on foreign media reporting in the country, disrupted cell phone use and text-messaging, and restricted internet access, making it hard to get information out of Iran.
Enter Twitter and Facebook, which rapidly became vital tools to relay news and information on anti-government protests to people inside and outside Iran. Although the authorities had banned access to Facebook during the run-up to the elections, users found ways around the restrictions and, during the demonstrations, Mousavi himself used Facebook to contact supporters and the outside world. As Ahmadinejad was calling the protesters “football hooligans”, messages relayed via the social media (often repeated on global media outlets such as the BBC and CNN) showed the protests to be peaceful.
These events show the potential role of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and YouTube in facilitating protest and dissent during times of conflict and suppression — as well as enabling the spread of state propaganda and surveillance. The Iranian case reveals the new and complex role of social media in contemporary geopolitics. For traditional media such as newspapers, television and radio are often territorially-bound, and thus subject to national laws (libel, censorship) and political-economic power structures (political pressure, ownership bias, advertiser demands); whereas social networking media are often decentralised, non-hierarchical and contain user-generated content.
Two weeks after the Iranian elections, global “tweets” (messages posted via Twitter) on Iran and the elections continued to flow at an astonishing rate. A quick glance at twitterfall.com (showing which subjects are generating the greatest number of messages from Twitter users) towards the end of June indicated that tweets on Iran were coming in at over one per second, and showed no sign of slowing down. It took the death of Michael Jackson to knock the Iranian elections and the protests in Tehran from the top of the twitterfall.com list of most popular topics.
While the majority of tweets on Iran came from outside the country, a handful of highly influential individuals inside became vital sources of information, both for people inside Iran and for international news organisations whose operations inside of the country had been severely restricted (the BBC’s John Lynne was expelled, the Tehran bureau of the Dubai-based satellite channel Al Arabiya closed, etc).
Two of the major figures in post-election Iranian twittering were Persiankiwi (with over 39,000 followers) and Mousavi1388 (over 28,000 followers). Persiankiwi rapidly became one of the most trusted sources of information from inside Iran, with news outlets such as the New York Times and Daily Telegraph lauding her/his reports. On 24 June Persiankiwi’s posts to Twitter abruptly ended, leading to speculation that she/he had been arrested.
Mousavi1388 (created by supporters of the candidate) also became an important player. In addition to the Twitter following, there was a Facebook page with over 5,000 friends, a YouTube channel with 31 video clips (watched a total of over 1m times), and a Flickr photo-sharing page with hundreds of images from protests in Tehran. Combined, the two (with numerous other Twitter users based in Iran) posted thousands of tweets, with information on upcoming protest locations, government disinformation and propaganda, warnings of police and paramilitary activity, advice on medical care, links to news and information from outside Iran, still images and video footage of protests, calls to people outside Iran to offer their support.
Mousavi sent messages to followers via Facebook and by late June his page had over 100,000 “friends.” Mousavi1388 even warned followers via Twitter that the Iranian authorities had set up two fake pro-Mousavi websites (www.mirhoseyn.ir and www.mirhoseyn.com) to trick protesters into disclosing personal information that could be used to locate and arrest them.
Icons of protest
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc also contributed to the dissemination of the iconic visual image of post-election Iran: video footage showing 26 year-old philosophy student Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death after reportedly being shot in the chest by a member of the basij (the paramilitary voluntary militia). The video – uploaded to YouTube and published on Facebook only minutes after the killing by an Iranian asylum-seeker in the Netherlands whose friend who had filmed the event on his mobile phone and mailed it to him (1)– attracted well over a million YouTube views in under a week. Neda became the opposition’s martyr figure.
The images of her lifeless eyes staring into the lens of the camera, blood flowing from her nose and mouth, have become as familiar as those of the young Kim Phuc running naked down a street during the Vietnam war, her skin burnt by napalm dropped from US military aircraft. Or the Tank Man who single-handedly defied a row of Chinese military vehicles in Tiananmen Sqaure in 1989. Or Ahmed Batebi, the Iranian student who in 1999 was pictured holding up a blood-stained t-shirt that had belonged to a friend beaten by government authorities.
But what is different about Neda Agha-Soltan is that her image went out instantaneously across the world. Phuc, the Tank Man and Batebi had great impact but they weren’t immediately incorporated into a freely-accessible, digital and ever-expanding flow of information as Neda’s was, to be archived, shared and re-shared by any and all with internet access.
The access to/posting of information (such as the images of Neda and the tweets of Mousavi1388) on social media within Iran has become one of the central issues in the battle between the Iranian authorities and anti-government protesters. The regime is engaged in a “proxy war” with Mousavi supporters: as access was restricted to sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (not to mention news outlets such as the Guardian and the BBC, and through it the UK government), people in Iran began to use “proxy servers” to regain access. A proxy server is software that can be run on any computer; it allows an individual to “share” their computer (and thus their internet access) with a stranger, regardless of location. A person in Iran, therefore, after configuring their own computer, would be able to use a proxy server to access unfiltered, uncensored versions of social media sites, as the “request” to access those sites goes through the proxy host instead of directly to the website (access to which has been blocked in most cases in Iran).
According to James Crowie of the internet analysis company Renesys, these “open web proxies” have become extremely valuable: “Iran’s opposition movement has been vigorously trading lists of open proxies” via services such as Twitter. (2) While some proxies were created specifically to help those inside of Iran gain access, many were created months or years ago and left dormant. Crowie’s analysis showed that these open proxies were to be found in large numbers in the United States and western Europe, but were also being made available by users in China, India, Russia, Romania and Vietnam. In the case of Iran, the most obvious drawback of using social media to announce lists of open proxies was that as soon as the information was made available, Iranian censors would immediately identify and blacklist them. Crowie indicated that within two weeks of the elections, there were very few, if any, open proxies still available for use in Iran.
Christopher Rhoads and Loretta Chao disclosed in the Wall Street Journal that the sophisticated monitoring of internet activity in Iran was made possible (at least in part) by technology provided to the Iranians through a joint venture between Siemens AG of Germany and the Finnish cell phone company Nokia (3). The Iranians, it was revealed, are capable of internet surveillance on a much deeper and more sophisticated level than previously suspected. Using a technique known as “deep packet inspection” it is possible for the government, at a specific node known as a “choke point”, to deconstruct and examine “emails and internet phone calls to images and messages on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter”. Rhoads and Chao said it was unclear whether or not the Nokia Siemens technology is being used specifically for deep packet inspection; a representative of the joint venture indicated that the technology was part of a larger contract to provide mobile phone networking technology. But what is clear is that the Iranians are filtering internet traffic using extremely advanced technology, leading the country to be named by Reporters Without Borders as one of the “12 Enemies of the Internet” (4).
Events in Iran should also make us aware of the dangers of sophisticated technology: the Iranian government used it to monitor internet users and their messages; it served to simplify surveillance, disinformation and repression. With newspaper headlines such as “Tyranny’s New Nightmare: Twitter”, there’s a tendency to assume that in the interrelationship between individual action, politics and technology, technology is the key. For instance, some mainstream newspapers labelled the anti-government protests this April in the Moldovan capital Chisinau “the first Twitter revolution”. Twitter was widely reported to have been the key in the efforts of journalist/activist Natalia Moriari to organise the protests. Yet in the following months it was suggested that the role of Twitter had, in fact, been greatly exaggerated.
Though we should not over-romanticise technologies such as Twitter and Facebook, what we have witnessed in Iran was unique. The US State Department even asked Twitter to delay a planned upgrade to their system that would have disrupted daytime service to Iranians. Twitter complied, rescheduling the upgrade and ensuring the work would take place in the middle of the (Iranian) night. The State Department’s request (which undoubtedly had more to do with US strategic interests than altruistic concerns for the Iranian protesters) shows its understanding of the potential of social media to recalibrate social and political power.
Politics has to do with the power to define what is right and wrong, what is legal and illegal, what is legitimate dissent or treason. Traditionally, it has used the mainstream media (newspapers, television, radio, film) to disseminate these discourses with access (in terms of production) limited to a narrow elite, and with content subject to varying political and economic agendas. Social media have made possible the presentation of alternative discourses to local and global audiences, challenging the orthodoxies of those in power.
CHRISTIAN CHRISTENSEN is associate professor of media and communication studies at Karlstad University, Sweden; his work focuses on political, economic and cultural aspects of global media. He can be reached at: Christian.Christensen@kau.se
This article was originally published by Le Monde Diplomatique.
(1) “How Neda Soltani became the face of Iran’s struggle”, The Guardian, 22 june.
(2) “The Proxy Fight for Iranian Democracy”, Renesys blog, 22 june.
(3) “Iran’s Web Spying Aided By Western Technology”, The Wall Street Journal, 22 june.
(4) “Internet Enemies”, Reporters Without Borders.