Iran: the revolution will be Twitterised

(with thanks to @Taylor_Seb for the Gil Scott Heron pun!)

I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told that Twitter has ‘come of age’, (certainly not in 140 characters) but I can’t resist saying it about the current situation in Iran. The cocktail of popular protests, a young and technologically-savvy population and newly-introduced draconian restrictions on mainstream media has proved a heady one, and the stream of tweets is pretty amazing if you follow #iranelection or #gr88. There are thankfully plenty of hackers in Iran who have helped activists and protesters get round the authorities’ attempts to block social media.

There’s strong interest from overseas too, of course – the fact that there’s a lot of support in the US for the Iranian protesters has led to a flurry of supportive posts, a mix of people who want to do something help – like Cory Doctorow’s helpful post – and those who just want everyone to know what side they’re on. It certainly says something about the rise of social media when the US State Department asks Twitter not to shut down for one of its scheduled updates, because they consider it to be such an important communication channel for Iranians right now.

I’ve spotted a lot of commentary around (like this one, I suppose) about social media in Iran – see the Washington Times and Independent’s articles, for example. It’s also well worth reading Robert Fisk’s excellent Indie piece from Tehran, in ‘defiance’ of the restrictions on foreign journalists – he notes a real change, having reportedly witnessed special forces police protecting pro-Mousavi demonstrators from the Basij militia rather than wading in alongside them.

The Twitter conversation on Iran hasn’t always been easy to follow: the sheer volume of tweets is quite overwhelming and there are lots of unconfirmed reports and unsubstantiated allegations. There are lots of messages about ‘fake tweets’ and misinformation from government ‘agents’ too. But I’ve noticed a few pro-Ahmedinejad tweets as well, so there is some genuine debate going on.

However you can clearly see just how useful a tool Twitter is proving. Info is getting out. There are warnings to the media not to reveal Twitterers’ names and people are sharing tips on how to evade censorship, as well as campaigning tools like buttons and badges. Importantly, Twitterers and bloggers are broadcasting details about who has been arrested and how police/the Basij are reacting to protests (for example @newsfromamnesty  revealing that 25 people including doctors and activists have been arrested in Tabriz). And social media has certainly fed more mainstream media: the Guardian now has a live blog from Iran and has used mobile phone footage; the Times has reprinted extracts from tweets and blogs in its coverage; and Newsnight had tweets running across the screen in their Iran package last night.

Of course people shouldn’t be forced into a situation where social media is the only way they have of communicating. The Iranian authorities should lift the restrictions on the mainstream media and should allow peaceful political protesters to gather and have their say without fear of violence or repression.  But while they keep trying to gag their opponents, beat up protesters and throw activists in jail, social media is playing a vital role in keeping us informed of what’s happening.

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