Social networking services allow demonstrators to communicate with the outside world and each other.
When I was a boy, my father would send me postcards from Tehran, Iran, where he was on assignment from his Paris-based architectural firm. His company was under contract with an agency of the U.S. Government to design a new hospital for the citizens of Tehran. That was back in the 1950s under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the country's last U.S.-friendly leader.
Times have changed since then, and the country has gone through tumultuous upheavals trying to free itself from the control of U.S. and British oil interests. Today in the streets of Tehran--and on the Internet--we see signs of the same familiar struggle between the middle-class, pro-west factions, represented by reformist Mir Hussein Mousavi, and the current fundamentalist, Islamic-backed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The contest has moved into cyberspace with denial-of-service (DoS) attacks against Iranian government Web sites, hacking into an unsuspecting (but security-vulnerable) apolitical Oregon University System Web site with a pro-Ahmadinejad political message, and a request by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Twitter to delay its scheduled maintenance shutdown to allow Iranian protestors to keep reporting what's happening on the streets of Tehran.
The hackers are siding with protestors, who claim that Ahmadinejad won following a rigged election. Despite the repressive policies, anti-Semitic comments, and steadfast nuclear ambitions that Ahmadinejad has displayed over the past four years, the votes he is reported to have won in the June 12 election are about the same as what he got when he was first elected back in 2005 during a decisive second-round victory over former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani--61.69 percent to 35.93 percent.
During this latest election, with 85 percent of eligible voters turning out, Ahmadinejad was reported to have won 62.63 percent of the vote to Mousavi's 33.75 percent with two other lesser candidates getting under three percent and a few ballots being voided (1.04 percent). The figures were supplied by the Iran Interior Ministry.
Further suggesting Ahmadinejad won the election, his victory is in line with pre-election polls taken by the New American Foundation (a Washington-based think tank chaired by Google CEO Eric Schmidt) and the non-profit institute Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, whose results were published last week in The Washington Post. Based on more than 1,000 Iranian voter interviews throughout all 30 provinces, the clear preference was not Mousavi--but Ahmadinejad.
Clearly, there were irregularities in the voting, and Iran's Guardian Council last Monday even admitted that the number of votes collected in 50 cities was more than the number of eligible voters. The findings put in question some three million votes but not enough to tilt Ahmadinejad's substantial lead.
So here is a question: If Ahmadinejad actually won, is it acceptable for bloggers, hackers, and street protestors to attempt to bring down the government's communications infrastructure, riot in the streets, and demand an electoral concession or a new election from the prevailing candidate? Or does the government's election-carrying authority give it the right to shut down basic communications services and ban peaceful protests?
The government of Iran, of course, is earning no sympathy from the rest of the world or its own citizens. It is shutting down cell phones, filtering Internet lines, and putting journalists in a virtual state of house arrest--all to keep its repressive goon-squad tactics from being aired to the world.
What is permitting us to see what is going on in this country with no U.S. Embassy--such as the tragic deaths of 20 people, including Neda Agha Soltan--are the social media sites like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and, especially, Twitter. If there ever were a case study showing the value of Twitter in today's world, the Iranian election protests are it. More than 270,000 tweets an hour this week made reference to the Iranian election.
Twitter has earned its stripes this month, placing it among the most valuable of the social networking services. Its unique mobile-centered model is proving to be a vital tool for Iranian protestors to share intelligence about the militia and security services, identify government-backed bloggers, and pass around information about the locations, dates, and status of planned demonstrations.
Andrew Walmsley, a marketing blogger and co-founder of i-level, sees lessons to be learned from the Iranian election experience. "Like many people [I] have struggled to see the point of Twitter," he concedes. He's not interested, he says, (nor are other business leaders) in what Demi Moore thinks of SuBo. But Twitter operates at a higher level. The power of Twitter is when people's individual tweets combine to "draw a picture of [a] people's mood."
"Setting aside the hype and inflated expectations of Twitter, what it can do for marketers is what it's doing for the State Department--connect us directly to what real people are saying about the things that matter to us.
"Using a tool like Twitterfall to monitor conversations around #iranelection is a line of sight straight into the word on the street, letting the State Department take the temperature of Iran's electorate," says Walmsley.
Whether the Iranian election protestors have the legal right they may need to challenge a repressive regime, or whether having the high moral ground by itself is sufficient, it's clear that utilizing today's new mobile social networking tools like Twitter is giving them a significant organizational edge that enhances the value of the Internet and wireless services in ways not yet fully appreciated.