Executive Summary: All a Twitter: How Social Networking Shaped Iran's Election Protests

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Executive Summary: All a Twitter: How Social Networking Shaped Iran's Election Protests

July 20, 2009 4 min read Download Report
Jim Carafano
Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute
James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Disputed results for the election of the Iranian president triggered a wave of public protests in Iran. Extensive media coverage highlighted the role of social networking, both in helping organize activities and sharing the progress of events. The use of e-mail, Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social-networking tools (often collectively called Web 2.0) to facilitate discussion, debate, and the exchange of ideas and information on a worldwide scale is a well-established phenomenon. Nevertheless, the cyber activism surrounding the Iranian protests was unprecedented, driving the global debate while governments and the established media struggled to keep pace. Though the confluence of events in Iran, including the courage of tens of thousands of Iranian citizens defying the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, certainly accounts for the dramatic events that played out in the streets of Tehran, there is little doubt that social-networking technologies proved themselves a prominent component of "main street" communications.

The ways in which protesters and others employed social-networking tools illustrate both the opportunities and obstacles of Web 2.0. On the one hand, "citizen reporters" found they could share stories with people around the world in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, "trolls," "vandals," "rats," "sock puppets," and other malicious online actors sought to spread false reports. The war in the streets spread to an online war of words. Internet warriors battled for information supremacy as well as combating the Iranian government's efforts to both limit access to the World Wide Web and spread disinformation. The battle of blogs, tweets, and posts illuminates the key challenge of employing social networking: information assurance--ensuring the right information gets to the right person at the right time, while making sure that the information provided is credible, understandable, and actionable.

The American government should pay close attention to the Iranian experience. Web 2.0 technologies have a potentially important role to play in a range of endeavors related to U.S. national security, from public diplomacy to communicating with citizens during catastrophic disasters. Government must become practiced in effectively employing these technologies, battling malicious actors online, and ensuring the resiliency of the global open net-work of free debate made possible by social-net-working tools. Accomplishing this three-fold mission demands that the U.S. government place more emphasis on the professional development of its workforce, the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies for turning Web 2.0 into Government 2.0, and implementing more robust public-private partnerships.

Twitter Turmoil. Iran's national election on June 12 was, according to Heritage Foundation Middle East expert Jim Phillips, "essentially a referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's embattled leadership, which has produced economic discontent, international isolation, and greater restrictions on personal freedom." Claims of irregularities emerged even before the vote, Phillips reported, including reports that the Iranian government "distributed 400,000 tons of free potatoes to the poor in a blatant effort to bribe voters. This led supporters of rival candidates to chant 'death to potatoes' at their campaign rallies." Ahmadinejad claimed victory only hours after the polls closed. Despite an endorsement of the election results by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, large street demonstrations escalated in the days following, including clashes with security forces, as well as numerous reports of acts of violence and intimidation after dark and the detention and arrests of political dissidents.

According to press reports, the Iranian govern-ment moved quickly to control the flow of public information. This included blocking or interfering with access to mobile networks, the Internet, and satellite television, as well as restricting access to foreign and domestic members of the media. Since the government of Iran, by constitutional fiat, owns and operates radio and television outlets, and by law all newspapers and publications must be supervised by the government, the regime holds a decisive advantage in managing public information. Even after protests subsided, the crackdown on news coverage continued. On June 20, the Iranian government shuttered the Tehran bureau of Al Arabiya, the Dubai-based Arab satellite news station. The next day, the BBC reported, "Jon Leyne, the BBC's permanent correspondent in Tehran, has been asked to leave by the Iranian authorities." In addition to expelling journalists, denying visas to journalists outside the country, and restricting access, Reporters Without Borders stated that as of June 20, the government had arrested at least 24 reporters.

Denied traditional sources of public information, the world turned to social-networking tools that provided services ranging from conventional news reports to a means for organizing protests worldwide. People used Web 2.0 technologies in support of at least four kinds of activities: (1) street journalism, (2) mobilizing the Iranian diaspora, (3) organizing the activists, and (4) information warfare. Though the government attempted to limit access to the Web, it was unable to prevent global activism in response to the Iranian election crisis.

Conclusion. The Iran protests may or may not prove to be a model for sweeping political change and activism in the new century. The lessons of the crisis do illustrate, however, the challenges of operating in a Web 2.0-enabled world. The lessons also suggest that Washington is not ready for prime time. The U.S. government needs to focus more on the professional development of its workforce, the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies for turning Web 2.0 into Government 2.0, and implementing more robust public-private partnerships.

The clock is ticking. Already half the world's population (more than three billion people) has access to a cellular phone. Within a dozen years, a majority of the people on earth will own one. More and more social-networking applications are being developed for cell phones every day. It is not unlikely that some not-too-distant future crisis will spur a global conversation that sweeps across America and around the world at cellular speed. When that happens, the U.S. government must be ready to play its part in the conversation--or its voice will be lost.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Jim Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute