Online posts break through Iran’s censorship efforts

Social media websites became the front lines in Iran’s nascent revolution on Tuesday, after the government banned foreign media from reporting on ever-growing protests in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last week.

“No journalist has permission to report or film or take pictures in the city,” a Culture Ministry official in Tehran told Reuters on Tuesday, after Iran cancelled accreditation and banned all foreign journalists from leaving their offices to cover the widespread unrest.

And while censorship efforts also appeared to be targeting ordinary citizens and websites, users around the globe joined in online efforts aimed at circumventing the crackdown, protecting information sources within Iran and getting their story out, against the government’s will.

“It’s being used to try to demonstrate that the official view of events from authorities is not the real view of events,” says Christopher Waddell, associate director of the school of journalism and communications at Carleton University.

On the micro-blogging site Twitter, more than 100 posts a minute poured in about Iran throughout the day Tuesday, though the accuracy and sources of much of the material was difficult to unravel. Users began inventing new “hashtags” — keywords that allow users to follow specific topics — for protest-related items, after reports circulated that authorities had started blocking the information within the country.

“The problem with this is that it’s so unfiltered, it’s like being in a blizzard sometimes, and it’s very hard to judge what’s true and what’s not,” says James Topham, a Twitter user and communications director for War Child Canada.

A Facebook group devoted to opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi had attracted more than 56,000 supporters by late Tuesday, and a few hundred more were joining every hour. Meanwhile, cellphone videos uploaded to YouTube and photos posted to Flickr and other image-sharing sites provided the global community with a visceral, ground-level view of the rallies and harsh response of Iranian authorities. Support for the electronic efforts was also flashing around the globe. One popular image making the rounds online was a print ad produced by the International Society for Human Rights, showing Ahmadinejad quivering in terror on a table as a computer mouse snakes across the floor.

Netizens were also trading tips for jamming Iranian government websites or helping people within Iran access blocked websites.

Twitter had scheduled a service interruption on Monday evening to upgrade its network, but in recognition of “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran,” it postponed the maintenance to the early-morning hours of Wednesday, Tehran time. Users who had railed against the shutdown claimed the victory, but the U.S. State Department confirmed Tuesday it had urged the site not to cut off Iranian users during daytime hours.

“It’s just a fascinating thing that’s happening,” Topham says. “When they set Twitter up, I’m pretty sure they didn’t have this in mind.”

He says the first time he realized the power of social media was during last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, when Twitter played host to a huge outpouring of firsthand information from a city under siege.

In April, protesters of disputed elections in the former Soviet republic of Moldova organized demonstrations of up to 15,000 people in part via Twitter and Facebook.

“Obviously, as time goes by and more people have the equipment, it happens more and more,” says Waddell, adding that text-messaging and video- and camera-enabled cellphones are the most ubiquitous tools for this.

One of the most interesting elements in the flurry of online activity on Iran is the co-operation between people in the country and those outside its borders, says Topham, mentioning messages that spread on Tuesday urging Twitter users all over the world to switch their location and time-zone settings within the software to Tehran co-ordinates to help conceal those actually sending messages from within Iran. Many users also tinted their profile photographs green to show solidarity with Mousavi’s green-clad supporters.

But what you see isn’t always what you get online, cautions Waddell.

“Just because somebody posts something, doesn’t mean that it’s right or true,” he says.

A “cyberwar guide” was also making the rounds online Tuesday, warning of inaccurate reports, and offering Internet users advice on how to help conceal the identity and location of sources within Iran, and entreating them to keep the online conversation on-track.

“Please remember that this is about the future of the Iranian people,” it concluded. “While it might be exciting to get caught up in the flow of participating in a new meme, do not lose sight of what this is really about.”


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