Iran Elections: A Twitter Revolution?

An Iranian girl looks back as supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi fight running battles using stones and petrol bombs against police, as they protest the results of the Iranian presidential election in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 13, 2009. Police tried to suppress demonstrators who took to the streets to protest the declared results of recent presidential elections. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
An Iranian girl looks back as supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi fight running battles using stones and petrol bombs against police, as they protest the results of the Iranian presidential election in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 13, 2009. Police tried to suppress demonstrators who took to the streets to protest the declared results of recent presidential elections. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis) (Ben Curtis - AP)
Evgeny Morozov
Blogger, Foreign Policy Magazine and Fellow, Open Society Institute
Wednesday, June 17, 2009; 3:00 PM

Evgeny Morozov, blogger for Foreign Policy magazine and a fellow with Open Society Institute, was online Wednesday, June 17, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the role of Twitter and other social-networking services and Web sites in coverage of the Iranian elections.

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.

State Department Talks to Twitter but It Should REALLY Be Talking to U.S. Treasury (Foreign Policy, June 16)

In an e-mail interview with Morozov said, "it has been of great help in terms of getting information out of the country. Whether it has helped to organize protests -- something that most of the media are claiming at the moment -- is not at all certain, for, as a public platform, Twitter is not particularly helpful for planning a revolution (authorities could be reading those messages as well!). However, in terms of involving the huge Iranian diaspora and everyone else with a grudge against Ahmadinejad, it has been very successful. Inevitably, there have been negative effects as well -- for example, several campaigns to organize cyber-attacks on pro-government Web sites have been publicized via Twitter, which I think shows that there is also a very dark side to new media that is yet to be explored."


Evgeny Morozov: Hi everyone! I'm a blogger for Foreign Policy's NetEffect blog (net.effect/Foreign Policy) and a fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York, where I study the role of technology in authoritarian states. I'm here to answer your questions about the role that social media (and especially Twitter) played in the protests that are happening in Tehran. Please feel free to submit your questions here - I'll try to answer as many of them as possible.


Washington, D.C.: Did the government shut down Twitter and other sites today in Iran? How is that all controlled?

Evgeny Morozov: It's very hard to say with absolute certainty if the government is trying to ban certain Web sites, Twitter included. The problem is that Iran's Internet infrastructure is not very advanced to start with; the connection could often be slow, even in normal times. When millions of people are suddenly trying to get online at the same time, it's logical that resources may simply become unavailable or take too much to load. On top of that, some Web sites are under server cyber-attacks, which slows down access to them as well; cyber-attacks also slow down the Iranian internet in general. So, when a Web site doesn't load, it can mean quite a lot of things, and it might take us some time to have conclusive answers as to whether there has been any manipulation/censorship.


Fairfax, Va.: There's been a lot written about the coverage in Iran this past weekend and that the U.S. news organizations didn't really carry their weight but that Twitter and other similar Web sites did spread news and let people know around the world what was going on in Iran. Comments?

Evgeny Morozov: We saw quite a few citizen journalists doing an excellent job of taking photos and videos of protests in Tehran almost in real-time. They have, indeed, filled an important niche. Networks like Twitter, similarly, have played a great role in attracting people's attention to this user-generated content. So, Flickr provided great photos -- and Twitter provided great attention to these photos. There has, indeed, been a lot of criticism of the lack of Iran-related coverage on CNN; Twitter users have even organized an entire campaign to deal with this called #cnnfail. I think they have been successful: CNN executives/reporters eventually had to answer questions about it.


Washington, D.C.: It seems like this is maybe the first time that technology has played such a role, with text messages and pictures on Twitter and other sites plus the use of cell phone cameras too. Is it a first? What is the Iranian government doing to try to stop information from coming out?

Evgeny Morozov: It's definitely not a first time. Technology has traditionally played a very important role in facilitating protest; remember that the early anti-communist protests in Poland were facilitated with the help of the Xerox machines! In the last decade, we have seen technology play a crucial role in helping people gather and, most importantly, get heard. Some of it was with the help of SMS technology; some -- with the help of blogs. You can look at the protests in the Philippines, Ukraine, Belarus, Burma, Moldova in the last decade and see that technology has been playing a very strong role in all of them! This, however, doesn't mean that the authoritarian governments themselves would not be exploring this technology for their own benefits; we have seen examples of that in Russia and China, to name only a few. I fundamentally disagree with the argument that technology favors only pro-Western and pro-democracy activists; it could easily favor the extremists too. Remember that the 1979 Iranian revolution was facilitated and brought about by tape recorders and video cassettes. So we definitely need to keep a sense of historical perspective here.


Bel Air, Md.: Is there a danger with the new technology of unqualified people "reporting" the news? Citizen journalists? Is there value in this? It's a Web generation that's out there doing reporting skills, etc. Is this where the world should get its news?

Evgeny Morozov: There are definitely dangers involved and we have to be very careful about what we read on blogs and Twitter. I know of many efforts where platforms like these have been deliberately abused to spread misinformation and cause panic. There are, however, also some very interesting new initiatives that can help us separate trustworthy content from what seems like government propaganda. In the case of Iran, for example, there have been several initiatives to compile the online names of Twitter users who appear to be working for the government or spreading misinformation. One such list is available at a Web site called TwitSpam. While their data is definitely not very authoritative, it could still helps us navigate this brave new world of user-generated content. I think we are at a point where we don't really have a choice: if the Iran succeeds in banning foreign reporters from doing any real work in the country, all we'll be left with would be Twitter and blog reports, so we'd better figure out ways in which we can prioritize and authenticate this information.


Chantilly, Va.: Social media is really stepping out. Technology is king. Voices are being heard. What's next?

Evgeny Morozov: I would caution against such an openly cyber-utopian perspective. As we have seen in the last few days, cyber activism without context could actually be extremely harmful as well. For example, we saw a lot of calls for Twitter users to participate in cyber-attacks on pro-government Web sites in Iran. While this seems nice in theory -- wouldn't it be nice to help the opposition there by shutting down government's propaganda channels? -- it also has had a negative effect on the overall Internet connectivity in the country. Simply put, attacking the Web sites of Ahmadinejad supporters has made life worse for everyone else, including their opponents. This is the kind of cyber-activism we'd rather avoid.

Another similar instance has been a campaign to publicize lists of so-called "proxy servers" that could help bypass some of the restrictions imposed by the government. Many Twitter users were posting links to them. However, by publicizing them too much, they also destroyed the value of such proxy servers, simply because the government and its loyalists also obtained access to them and proceeded to ban them.

So, it's very important not to get too starry-eyed about it and try to be as strategic as possible. Also, if you are not fully sure about the impact that your act of online support might have on the situation on the ground, you'd better think twice about engaging in it.


New York, N.Y.: How do we know that what winterers in Iran write is true? How do we know that the regime is not having "hired winterers" to spread confusing info?

Even Morose: See my earlier response about lists prepared by Twit Spam. In most cases, we don't know who is who and we should be extremely cautious. Many other governments have already developed capabilities to manipulate new media space; they have created their own "spinneret" -- an Internet full of spin and propaganda. They have also learned how to do it in ways that would not be easily detectable. Even in the case of the much-discussed "Twitter revolution" in Moldova in April, we saw attempts to spread misinformation and lies -- and most of these lies came from newly created accounts on Twitter. Thus, we have to be extremely careful and apply our best judgment. If we are not entirely sure about the truth of the information we are reading, we'd better not spread it around by reposting it to Face book, emailing it to our friends, etc


Minsk: What's the advantage of using Twitter for Iranians? Why not use "safer" channels (e.g., closed discussion groups, etc.)? Is Twitter so popular among Iranian youth, in other words, to be actually useful for mobilization and broadcasting purposes?

Evgeny Morozov: You are right: in my opinion, there are VERY FEW advantages of using Twitter in Iran in order to plan protests (or even the revolution itself, if it's in the plans). The key thing to understand about successful political protests is that they rarely succeed if the government has the ability to monitor them from the very beginning. By discussing the organization of such protests on Twitter and other public forums, young Iranians probably hurt their effectiveness. I am yet to see evidence that Twitter is, indeed, being used on a mass scale to plan protests.

What IS definitely happening is that Twitter is used to publicize protests that are already going on -- and bring the world's attention to the acts of violence committed by the regime. Twitter's open platform and excellent ability to quickly spread information in decentralized fashion are perfect for this; this is why we see so many references to Iran there at the moment.

Another problem is that we don't really know how many people ARE actually using Twitter in Iran today. This has to do with the fact that many Twitter users who are not in Iran decided to set their online location to Tehran in order to protect those who are twittering locally. This may have helped some of Iranian Twitter users avoid persecution but it has made it impossible for us to find out the real impact of Twitter on the situation on the ground. My hunch is that this impact could be much more limited than we expect.


Washington, D.C.: Do we know anything about the extent to which the authorities have sought to interfere with mobile telephony in Iran?

Evgeny Morozov: Once again, we can't tell it for sure. If we look at other similar protests outside of Iran, yes, authorities have been quite eager to turn off mobile coverage, particularly in areas where protesters are likely to congregate (this happened in Belarus and Moldova in the last few years, for example). I have seen reports that mobile networks were down in Iran too, but it's very hard to say whether it was due to interference by the government or by simply because of heavier-than-usual use by mobile phone users. Logically, during times of turmoil, there is always more demand for the scarce mobile resource as people start checking in on their friends and beloved ones. So, not every network outage is necessarily an act of the government, even though there are good reasons to suspect them of intervention.


Arlington, Va. : What is the risk like for false information being spread and picked up by the media through this cyberweb of news?

Evgeny Morozov: The risks are certainly great and Twitter's 140-character-only environment makes them even greater. While Twitter may be great for sharing links to Web sites, articles, and blog posts that may be very long and elaborate, it's very hard to make a good argument in 140 characters or less. Thus, there is a very big risk of someone misinterpreting of what you are trying to say -- after all, there is very little room for context. Similarly, there is a lot of confusion about the authorship and, thus, the credibility of some reports: if I repost someone else's update from Tehran, but remove that person's name for space considerations, are my Twitter "followers" likely to understand that this is NOT me reporting it? Those are all questions that we need to answer before we jump to conclusions about "Twitter" reports from Tehran.


Washington, D.C.: Some reports have said that not that many people in Iran were twittering, that it came from outside the country and the internal numbers were negligent. Do you have any proof of this?

Evgeny Morozov: See my earlier response to a similar question. I am afraid we are not going to find out an answer to this question any time soon. In addition to thousands of people who have now listed their location at Tehran as an act of solidarity/support to the protesting Iranians, there is a huge Iranian diaspora that, in my understanding at least, is using social media even more actively than their peers back in Iran. So, if the person's name sounds Iranian, they have some content in Farsi on their blog, and are posting a lot about events in Tehran - how do we know if they are in Tehran or, say, Los Angeles? This might take quite a lot of time to investigate and figure out for sure, and I am afraid that we are jumping to conclusions too soon.


Wilmington, N.C.: Has anyone interviewed the founders of Twitter? I bet they had no idea their seemingly frivolous site would amount to such an important role in the almost violent-free changing of an authoritarian government. I'm almost disappointed, though, that the State Department had to ask them not to do maintenance work on a crucial daytime hour. But all in all it is still really great . Thank you for taking my comment and question.

Evgeny Morozov: I think we should give more credit to Twitter's founders (who have, indeed, been interviewed on the matter). As they said -- and I have no idea to doubt their words -- they would have postponed the maintenance even if the State Department didn't contact them. This was a very easy decision to make, as the Twitter community was really ready for a rebellion if there was no postponement. Yes, I think they may not have expected how Twitter would be used in places like Iran or Moldova. However, I think this only highlights how good this service is; most great technologies have several uses -- and the most interesting uses are never anticipated by their founders.

However, I think we should also be a bit critical of the State Department. Instead of just going after Twitter for wanting to carry out maintenance, they may have as well gone after their colleagues in the U.S. Treasury who have instituted some draconian measures on the export of U.S. software to Iran. Instant messaging software like MSN Messenger, for example, is no longer available in Iran, since Iran is on the list of embargoed states. The Twitter Revolution in Iran could have been much different if the U.S. government was not taking away with one hand what they give with another: allowing Iranians to access all reasonable online and offline tools should be the objective of the U.S. government policy here.


Potomac, Md.: Has all the tweeting and blogging mostly been from the opposition side of Mousavi supporters? Have there been tweets from the Ahmadinejad side of things? Whose hands is the technology in, just the university students?

Evgeny Morozov: There have definitely been blogs posts and tweets from both sides. However, if you look only at English-language content on Twitter, you may get a different impression -- most of the posts there look as if they have been posted only by supporters of Mousavi. This, however, is only because they do so in English and have a much bigger support base among English-speakers.

However, we should also understand that there are few incentives for supporters of Ahmadinejad to use Twitter; they would not succeed in converting most American or European users of Twitter to their side. Thus, I assume they are relying on other online platforms that may actually help them reach out the local population -- and it's the local population that is going to determine the outcome of this battle. So, to really understand how new media tools have been used by both sides, we need to look at Farsi-language Internet forums and blogs-- something that is simply beyond most Twitter users at the moment, for language reasons. I suspect that if we carried out a full analysis of all content, we would see a very different picture.


D.C.: Sorry to post this late and without reading the rest of the chat. I don't know if you've responded to this question yet. If you haven't -- a friend recommended changing Twitter settings to location = Tehran and time zone for Tehran. I did this, but is that effective for confusing Iranian "security" types? Meaningful? Widespread?

Evgeny Morozov: I mentioned this in passing while responding to an earlier question but let me elaborate. I think it's not going to confuse the Iranian authorities. Nor do I think that they are going to lock up the entire Twitter population of Iran. They will most likely go after very visible and high-profile Twitter users; those, I think, are already well-known to them and they certainly keep an eye on what those are writing. We have seen that the Iranian authorities are capable of jailing bloggers - they have do so many times in the past. I think they may eventually start intimidating bloggers and Twitter users once the protests quiet down (if they do). In other words, I don't think it's the lack of candidates for arrest that stops them from doing this at the moment.

One inadvertent consequence of this cyber-campaign to change users' location settings to Tehran was to inflate the number of real Twitter users in Iran. Right now, it's impossible to tell for sure how many users Twitter really has in the country; consequently, we can only speculate about the real role that it played. The documented low number of Twitter users in Moldova (i.e. those who chose Moldova as their location), for example, was one of the arguments against calling those events a "Twitter revolution". I am not sure we would be able to make the same argument with Iran anymore.


Santa Barbara, Calif.: Is the Iranian government aware that outsiders have launched DDOS (denial of service) attacks on their servers? If so, do you think there will be any repercussions either domestically or internationally because of such attacks?

Evgeny Morozov: It's very ironic but I think the Iranian government hugely benefited from these DDOS attacks. I've already explained this in an earlier answer, but, in short, these DDOS attacks have made Internet in Iran very slow, thus thwarting people's ability to get pictures and videos and even blog post out of the country. I am not sure that the Iranian government really needed much of a Web presence; they, after all, control much of television and radio and can influence their domestic audience through those (much more powerful) means. Thwarting their citizens' the ability to communicate to the outside world, however, has been one of their key objectives -- and I think that DDOS attacks have inadvertently helped them achieve it.


Evgeny Morozov: Thank you all very much for very informed and challenging questions. I've enjoyed responding to them. I'll continue blogging about the role of social media in Iran on my Foreign Policy blog, so please tune in!

_______________________ Foreign Policy: Evgeny Morozov's Blog


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