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Iranian Protesters Mobilize on Social Media Web Sites

June 17, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Social media Web sites like Twitter and Facebook are playing an important role in political protests rippling through Iran. Margaret Warner speaks with experts about how such social networking sites are affecting Tehran's political scene.
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MARGARET WARNER: And as we just heard in that ITN report, Facebook and Twitter have become key means of communication among Iranians.

A quick primer on Twitter: It’s a free social networking and micro-blogging Internet service. Users can send and read each others’ 140-character-long updates known as tweets. Non-subscribers can read the tweets, too.

Over the weekend, the State Department asked the Twitter company to delay planned upgrades to the system to make sure Iranians had access to it during their daylight hours.

For more on the role that all this new media and communication technology is playing in the post-election turmoil in Iran, we go to Reza Aslan, an assistant professor at the University of California-Riverside and the author most recently of “How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.” He is also a columnist for thedailybeast.com.

And Robert Faris, research director at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he’s currently working on a global study with the OpenNet Initiative of Internet-censoring practices in 35 countries.

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

Reza Aslan, how essential are these new methods of communication and reporting to what we’re seeing unfolding in Iran?

REZA ASLAN, author: Well, I think the truth is that there are two revolutions taking place in Iran right now. There’s the one on the streets — that’s obvious — but there’s also a revolution taking place in cyberspace.

I mean, never before have we seen the Internet used in this way to essentially put together and coordinate an entire uprising taking place in a country and this, by the way, despite the fact that the Iranian government has some very sophisticated filtering technologies.

They’ve blocked access to Facebook. They’ve blocked access to Twitter. But what they haven’t relied upon is how much more sophisticated on the Internet the youth culture in Iran is.

So thanks to various proxy servers that are redirecting posts, the fact that digital addresses are being exchanged faster than the government can actually keep up, and now, in a really interesting twist, we have some of these net-free activists in the United States who are not only sending Iranians information about how to bypass these various filters that the government has put up, but who are actually now hacking into Iran’s own servers and trying to make the Iranian government actually have a harder time blocking the access that these kids have.

Taking advantage of technology

Rob Faris
Berkman Center for Internet and Society
For a full protest, you'd want to use a lot of different Internet tools. We've seen Facebook and YouTube and many things very influential in places in the past. Particularly, the Obama administration's use of online political tools was very powerful.

MARGARET WARNER: Rob Faris, give us a little more, for those of us who aren't technologically as savvy as some of these young people are, how exactly the protestors are using these various avenues? And which ones are still up and running, and which ones are pretty much shut down?

ROB FARIS, Berkman Center for Internet and Society: Well, they've -- for a full protest, you'd want to use a lot of different Internet tools. We've seen Facebook and YouTube and many things very influential in places in the past. Particularly, the Obama administration's use of online political tools was very powerful.

In Iran, it's in the context of intense Internet regulation, as intense as any place around the world. And we've seen a recent increase in blocking of Internet sites, including a large majority of the sites most frequented by the reformist sectors in the Iranian blogosphere, and a lot of marquee sites, so Facebook, and YouTube, and Twitter have all been blocked, which takes a big chunk of Internet traffic out of play in Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: But explain, then, how they can still continue to use Twitter, because that is Internet-based?

ROB FARIS: So we're finding Twitter to be much more robust and resilient than we probably had given it credit before. Twitter has many avenues into it. The two principal avenues were through Twitter.com and SMS, texting on cell phones. These were both shut down, and I think it's pretty apparent to most of us that the intent was to block access to Twitter.

But there's a lot of different avenues to get these tweets out there. They're very small. There's third-party applications that give you access to it. And as we just heard, a lot of people are becoming more adept at using circumvention techniques to get through the filters that the Iranian government has put in place.

Officials taken by surprise

Reza Aslan
University of Califorina-Riverside
The truth is, is that, in 2009, thanks to these new media technologies, there is simply no such thing as a media blackout any longer. And I do think that that has gone a long way towards, well, let's say moderating the response of the Iranian regime.

MARGARET WARNER: Reza Aslan, do you think that the Iranian government expected this kind of way of really defying them? Were they prepared?

REZA ASLAN: Absolutely not. No, no, absolutely not. I think they were ill-prepared in many ways, not just for the amount of vitriol and the number of people who have joined this protest movement, and the way that it has now cut across all the usual divisions between class and religious piety or political affiliation.

I mean, it's really a movement that is being carried out at the very highest levels of the clerical establishment itself, with Ayatollah Rafsanjani and Ayatollahs Montazeri and Sanei. These are the sort of top-ranking ayatollahs that have now thrown their weight behind the protesters.

But, also, I think that they assumed that they could just sort of continue a media blackout and then essentially do what they wanted to do, as they did in 1999, when another uprising was very violently quashed by the government.

The truth is, is that, in 2009, thanks to these new media technologies, there is simply no such thing as a media blackout any longer. And I do think that that has gone a long way towards, well, let's say moderating the response of the Iranian regime.

I think that they would have been far more violent had they not been certain that their actions would be seen all around the world.

Twitter's reliability

Rob Faris
Berkman Center for Internet and Society
We probably wouldn't want to put too much trust or credence in an individual (tweet), but looking at hundreds and thousands of them, you get a pretty good sense of what's happening in real time in events.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to follow up on that point, but let me first ask you, Rob Faris, we are now getting all these little bits and pieces of information, not from the mainstream media. How reliable is it?

ROB FARIS: Individually, probably not that reliable. In aggregate, probably pretty reliable.

There's these individual tweets, 140 characters coming out. It's like voices shouting out of a crowd. We probably wouldn't want to put too much trust or credence in an individual one, but looking at hundreds and thousands of them, you get a pretty good sense of what's happening in real time in events.

It's certainly a different kind of reporting, though. This is not long-form investigative reports. These are just little observations of what's going on, on the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Reza Aslan, is there a great opportunity here for distortion by either side when you're getting into this -- essentially you're describing a cyber-war with the government coming up with certain blocking mechanisms and then the protestors finding a way around it and back and forth.

REZA ASLAN: As a matter of fact, it's already begun on both sides. We now have reports of government operatives and supporters of Ahmadinejad tweeting, pretending to be, actually, reformists, pretending to be protesters, making announcements of fake meetings or fake rallies or, for that matter, giving false information about where rallies are actually being held.

We even have reports of a group of Revolutionary Guard members, or Basij members, I should say, the paramilitary organization in Iran, who have dressed up like Mousavi supporters, dressed all in green, and who have taped themselves conducting various acts of vandalism and then uploaded those tapes on to Facebook and on to YouTube.

But, again, the thing about the 'net is that it sort of polices itself. And what I found very fascinating is that those who are in the reformist camp have been very adept at rooting out the pretenders, the impersonators, and always making sure that people know exactly who can be trusted and who can't be trusted.

And, frankly, the best example of whether this is working or not is the hundreds of thousands of people who, almost in a spontaneous manner, have been showing up in these various rallies in support of the reform movement.

Government options

Reza Aslan
University of California-Riverside
I think it may very likely be the biggest protest we've seen so far, because it does bring up this whole issue of mourning ceremonies, which are taken very seriously in Iran, and...is taking a page out of the playbook of the 1979 revolution.

MARGARET WARNER: Rob Faris, follow up on the point that Reza had made earlier about he believes this is actually inhibiting the government's response. Do you think that the protesters are keeping pace enough technologically that a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown, which some people have been fearing, could no longer -- could not take place now without the world essentially seeing it? Do you think that we've moved to that point?

ROB FARIS: Perhaps. I mean, there is certainly a more extreme measure that could be put into place, which is just shutting the Internet down. We've seen it before. It happened in Burma two years ago. Nepal had done it before that.

I think part of the issue here is that, in shutting down these communication mechanisms, they come at a political cost. If the current government is fighting for a sense of legitimacy in their actions, then every additional step that they take has a severe cost to it.

Could they shut down the Internet? Of course. Will they? I doubt it.

MARGARET WARNER: And that would mean that commerce in Iran might come not to a halt, but it would also affect the whole society, would it not?

ROB FARIS: Oh, it certainly would. But we've already seen a half-measure there. We believe that the throttling of the Internet is a half measure, to inhibit communication from going on without taking the extreme measure of just pulling the plug on the entire 'net.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, Reza Aslan, because we're almost out of time, what should we expect tomorrow? Do you think the big protest that Mousavi has actually called for will be huge?

REZA ASLAN: I think it may very likely be the biggest protest we've seen so far, because it does bring up this whole issue of mourning ceremonies, which are taken very seriously in Iran, and which, by the way, is taking a page out of the playbook of the 1979 revolution.

You come out into the streets to mourn those who were martyred in previous rallies, in the notion or the expectation that even more people will be martyred, which will then lead to greater protests and rallies, and that will just be a snowball effect.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, we have to leave it there. Reza Aslan and Rob Faris, thank you both.

ROB FARIS: Thanks so much.