By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
The State Department asked social-networking site Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance earlier this week to avoid disrupting communications among tech-savvy Iranian citizens as they took to the streets to protest Friday's reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The move illustrates the growing influence of online social-networking services as a communications media. Foreign news coverage of the unfolding drama, meanwhile, was limited by Iranian government restrictions barring journalists from "unauthorized" demonstrations.
"One of the areas where people are able to get out the word is through Twitter," a senior State Department official said in a conversation with reporters, on condition of anonymity. "They announced they were going to shut down their system for maintenance and we asked them not to."
A White House official said "this wasn't a directive from Secretary of State, but rather was a low-level contact from someone who often talks to Twitter staff." The official said Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted, according to news reports. "Twitter is simply a medium that all Iranians can use to communicate," the official said.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.
It is hard to say how much twittering is actually going on inside Iran. The tweets circulated by expatriates in the United States tend to be in English -- the Twitter interface does not support the use of Farsi. And though many people may be sending tweets out of Iran, their use inside Iran may be low, some say.
"Twitter's impact inside Iran is zero," said Mehdi Yahyanejad, manager of a Farsi-language news site based in Los Angeles. "Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look . . . you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves."
However, an Iranian-American activist in Washington said that tweets from a handful of students have been instrumental in getting information to people outside Iran. She spoke on condition of anonymity citing concern that authorities in Tehran could block her from receiving transmissions.
"The predominant information is coming from Twitter" since foreign reporters' movement has been limited, she said. "They are relying on Iranians and others who are Twittering to get this information out to the mainstream media. A lot of people are coining what is happening in Iran as a Twitter revolution."
Users around the world following the election drama in Tehran found that it was listed as the most popular discussion topic on Twitter yesterday and Monday. Many users, logging on from outside Iran, said they changed their account's location listing to Tehran, in a move to confuse government censors who might be trying to shut down communications from Iran.
Since Friday, Iranian expatriates have kept one another apprised of events by forwarding to Facebook "tweets" containing information that often appeared to have originated in Iran.
"My friends are being held against their will in the university," wrote one. "Rasoul Akram hospital has medics outside, go there for help," advised another. Some uploaded pictures and videos of police violence against protesters to sites such as Flickr and YouTube.
Some information tweeted about planned gatherings, or about the shooting of a protester, has been confirmed by mainstream media. Other reports have been debunked or have proven impossible to verify.
Though Twitter wasn't the only Web service used by supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi as Iran's election strife played out, Iranian government officials were more successful in shutting out access to Web sites such as Facebook than they were with Twitter, where entries are limited to 140 characters or less.
Tech industry analyst Rob Enderle said Twitter might be more resistant to the Iranian government's attempts to block access because users can post updates via a cellphone's text-messaging service, or SMS.
"Twitter is a unique property because it works easily with SMS," Enderle said. "That gives it a resiliency that isn't shared by other online-only sites," such as Facebook, he said. To block Twitter use, he said, Iran would either have to shut down text messaging on a one-to-one basis, a tedious and time-intensive process, or shut down text messaging throughout the country.
In a blog entry posted Monday, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone cited users in Iran as a reason for delaying "a critical network upgrade" but did not mention any contact from State Department officials. The maintenance, as originally scheduled, would have disrupted Twitter service for users in Tehran yesterday morning.
The State Department's request contrasts with recent comments from President Obama saying that the United States would not get involved in the matter. Obama said earlier this week that he and other world leaders have "deep concerns" about the Iranian election, but that he did not want the United States to be seen as meddling.
Protesters have often used new technologies to evade government attempts to stifle dissent, said Tim Bajarin, with the Silicon Valley research firm Creative Strategies. In the last days of the Soviet Union, dissenters used underground fax services to spread information, he said.
This is not the first time Twitter users have employed the service toward serious ends. Last year, an American journalism student was arrested in Egypt for taking photographs at a protest. After typing a single word -- "arrested" -- into his cellphone, which relayed it to his Twitter account, the student's friends and family contacted the State Department in the hopes of pressuring the Egyptian government for his release.
Staff writers Tara Bahrampour, Liz Heron, Glenn Kessler and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.