Tweeting the News from Iran

By Marc Seltzer; originally published June 17, 2009 at

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Reporting through Twitter while other outlets are banned

A literary theme familiar in the United States is that government may one day use technology to oppress its people. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four planted the seed of awareness in the Western mind, and as radars have come to watch our speed on the road, cameras look for criminal behavior indoors and satellites listen to our telephone calls, we have become concerned about the growing power of “Big Brother.”

Could Orwell have imagined that the tables may be turned on oppressive governments in the 21st century? Following the June election in Iran, the Islamic Republic is turning off the technology in hopes of restricting communications among its stirring populace. Journalists are restricted from covering protests. Major news organizations are unable to penetrate the events with video cameras and microphones.

However, regular Iranians are reporting from the streets by Twitter. A social networking site popular among celebrities, Twitter conveys short messages, including images and websites by Internet URL link from a cell phone, handheld digital device or computer. Followers around the world receive updates from the homes, offices and streets of Tehran.

To get a sense of what can and cannot be conveyed in the 140 characters that each “Tweet” is limited, to I have copied a recent series of communications (each of the following paragraph blurbs were originally separate “Tweets”):

  • it is now dawn in tehran – streets are quiet – we must move from here – this was good internet connection but not ours – #Iranelection
  • last night thousands stayed in streets between Parkway and Vanak sq until after 2am – #Iranelection
  • unconfirmed – several Generals have been arested – #Iranelection
  • unconfirmed – military has refused orders to shoot protesters – #Iranelection
  • Kamenei is under pressure and fighting for survival – without ANejad his authority is finished – #Iranelection
  • large demo today outside tehran tv-radio headquerters – Karroubi attended – #Iranelection
  • support for Mousavi in Tabriz is v-high – many protests – #Iranelection

While Twitter is not a major news outlet with live reporting and video, it is still contemporaneous to the events reported. There are questions of credibility as a consequence, such as who is really Tweeting, which we cannot always know. In fact, some Twitter communications have warned that the Iranian Government is setting up fake Twitter sites, spreading false information to protesters.

On the other hand, Twitter has been used to guide hundreds of thousands of protesters to rallies and redirect them quickly and efficiently when locations or times are changed. Reports on the arrest of leaders, the number of participants at government and opposition rallies, and action or lack of action by the police and military are also reported.

A few of the hot Twitter sources are: “Persiankiwi”, “Irannewsnow”, and “StopAhmadi”. The U.S. State Department reportedly asked the executives at Twitter, located in California, to forego a scheduled maintenance shut down in order to keep the Tweets coming during the Iranian crisis. Traditional print and broadcast reporters have been told that they cannot report on events in Iran without permission of the government, and that permission is not being given freely. As events unfold, you may be able to piece together facts on the ground in Iran using updates from Twitter sources.

While the outcome of the election conflict in Iran remains to be seen, at this point, the public is using technology to further democratic ends. Where there is no free press, information still flows from person to person through the Internet. Where the government tries to restrict public assembly, instant communication helps people organize and connect in protest beyond the reach of the government. And, where the government tries to control the story, the truth gets out. George Orwell, who wrote during the consolidation of Soviet authoritarianism, might be surprised. He would certainly be pleased.

One response to “Tweeting the News from Iran

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