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Iranian Leaders Clampdown on Social Media

Iranian Leaders Clampdown on Social Media

One year ago, Iran's 'Twitter revolution' made headlines in the western media. Yet in Iran itself, no Twitter revolution was taking place at all.

As several opposition members and bloggers tell RFE/RL, if any social networking innovations are to receive credit, they should be Facebook and YouTube.

Following the announcement of the results of the vote on June 12, 2009, large numbers of Iranians took to the streets to protest what they saw as a fraudulent poll that led to the re-election of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Activists inside the country say the protests over the election results were spontaneous, and spread by word of mouth through traditional networks such as family and colleagues. A more modern medium, text messaging, aided this effort when the Iranian government wasn't shutting down mobile-phone networks, which happened quite often. And satellite television broadcasts were also a valuable tool in informing people about the protests.

The demonstrations were born of outrage, and sustained by the even greater outrage that resulted from the government's brutal reaction to the protests.

Social networking sites and new media played a major role in publicizing the post election protests. They also facilitated sharing information among opposition activists and documenting their struggle.
But as popular Iranian blogger Alireza Rezaei tells RFE/RL, new media didn't mobilize and embolden protesters as some claimed. Rezaie, who participated in the postelection protests in the Iranian capital, says what happened last year in Iran was a mass movement made up of real people -- many of whom didn't use, or even have access to, the Internet and new media.
 "From the beginning, the Green Movement was not created and did not move forward [in an organized manner] -- it wasn't like some made a decision and informed others,” Rezaei said. “When you'd walk in the streets, at work, wherever you'd go, people were talking about it and they all wanted to react."

Digital Record Of Violence

The outrage of many Iranian citizens found voice in the chants of "Where is my vote?" in the streets, and the shouts of "Allah Akbar" and "Death to the dictator" from the rooftops at night.

When their cries were met with force, they used their cell phones to capture the scenes of violence, including beatings of peaceful protesters by security forces and killings in the streets of Tehran and other cities.

The videos were quickly posted on YouTube and shared on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Millions of people watched those videos, including the video clip of Neda Agha Soltan's last moments after she was fatally shot at a peaceful protest in the Iranian capital. As a result, she became the symbol of an opposition movement that has come under fire by Iran's leaders.

During the post election violence, Western media were banned from covering the protests, and domestic outlets were under a clampdown. In the absence of independent media, Iranian citizens felt it was their duty to document the post election events. "Each citizen a medium" was and remains one of the slogans of the Green Movement. And YouTube became the medium that allowed citizen journalists to share scenes of defiance, courage, and violence, bloody faces and burning cars, to other Iranians and to people around the world.

One Tehran-based journalist and supporter of the Green Movement said during those days that Facebook turned into an important tool for the opposition movement to share information and news.

Facebook was blocked in Iran in 2006. Several months before the 2009 vote, authorities unblocked the social networking website, to the joy of many young Iranians.

Yet the journalist, speaking to RFE/RL a year later on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, explains that authorities again blocked Facebook in the weeks before the June 12 vote because of the extensive use of the site by supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi.
"Before the election, the impact of Facebook was clear and it forced the government to block access to it. I still remember the protest that took place on June 13, a day after the vote. When video of the protest was posted on YouTube and shared on Facebook, the number of protesters grew," he says.

The journalist says that Facebook remains a main tool of information-sharing and discussion for some "Green activists," but notes that it also poses the danger of limiting activists to a virtual world that distances them from the realities on the ground.

Rezaei, who had to flee Iran a few months ago and is currently in France, also believes that Facebook played an important role for sharing uncensored information about developments related to the Green opposition movement.

He remembers how some of the key reformist figures jailed in the postelection crackdown and their families would inform others about their situation via Facebook. One of them was the imprisoned former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. “It was clear he had been asked not to talk about [what he'd been through and the protests], but he updated his Facebook status just to say hello to his friends and fans. He was on Facebook despite everything," Rezaei says.

Twitter’s Role ‘Exaggerated’

Rezaei says blogs were also important in last year's events. He said many Iranians used their blogs to report about the street protests, and that made them the target of Iranian authorities who filtered their blogs and arrested a number of them.

Twitter played a significant role in bringing the world attention's to the street protests and the use of force by security forces. The U.S. State Department reportedly asked Twitter to delay some scheduled maintenance in order to allow Iranians to communicate as the protests grew more powerful. Former U.S. national security adviser Mark Pfeifle said Twitter should get the Nobel Peace Prize because "without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy."

Yet Iranian blogger and Internet activist known as Vahid Online, who was in Tehran during the 2009 events, tells RFE/RL that Twitter's role inside Iran was exaggerated by outside observers.

News about the Iranian protests, videos, and pictures were tweeted and re-tweeted under the #iranelection hashtag by many people around the world, including Iranian expats who turned their avatars green in an expression of solidarity with the opposition movement.

"Twitter never became very popular in Iran. [But] because the world was watching Iran with such [great interest] during those days, it led many to believe falsely that Iranian people were also getting their news through Twitter," the Iranian blogger said.

The blogger denies claims that Iran experienced a “Twitter revolution.” He says that some Internet users encouraged others on social networking sites to participate in the protests, but he believes that Facebook and Twitter were not used for coordination purposes.

Activists believe that the Internet and new media, particularly Facebook, will remain a platform of information sharing for opposition activists who use proxies to access blocked opposition websites and social networking sites.

Rezaei says more than anything, the Green Movement is about people who want freedom and democracy. Many believe they will remain a challenge for the Iranian regime, which has launched an extensive intimidation campaign aimed at silencing the opposition through means including arrests, torture, threats, and increased online censorship.

By Golnaz Esfandiari

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