Twitter: Iran’s voice of dissent

At about 3.30pm Iranian time on Monday this week, an Iranian student calling himself Fair_vote_Iran wrote the following breathless post on his Twitter page. “Basij [the government paramilitary force] is after us. Slept in the streets last night. Internet is down in most of the city.”

Moments later he added: “Five killed in the girl’s dorm,” and then, “Asad is dead & I don’t know where is Mohsen, lost him in the crowd yesterday.”

He continued to tweet a mixture of the horrifying and the absurd — how his friend had called him and was fine, but his father was still out in the crowd; how another friend had been badly injured in the protests, finally got to hospital, but was arrested there; how his final exams were proceeding as if nothing was happening. “According to university’s head, everything is just fine!” he wrote.

His constant preoccupation was the accessibility of technology: “It’s getting almost impossible to reach Twitter”; “I can’t contact anyone … cellphones are out again.”

As foreign journalists were expelled from Iran or confined to their hotel rooms during the protests sparked by Iran’s contested elections, and as events moved at speed through the day, web users across the world turned in enormous numbers to their counterparts in Iran, who were using blogs, YouTube and social networking sites to spread information that would otherwise not have reached a wide audience.

As one Twitter user with apparent links to the opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi put it: “Everybody try to film as much as poss today on mobiles … these are eyes of world.”

Mobile phone footage and grainy pictures were copied onto blogs and news sites, while mainstream broadcasters, their correspondents constrained, relied on user-generated footage in an attempt to circumvent the censored state broadcasts.

If the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was the moment when blogging arrived in the news, Iran’s elections will be remembered by many as a Twitter crisis. The social networking site, which allows users to post messages, or “tweets”, of up to 140 characters, has shown itself perfectly suited to a fast-moving situation where there is a thirst for snatches of information in real time.

Twitter has been at the heart of Iran’s resistance since the election, so much so that the site’s owners, based in San Francisco, agreed to postpone routine maintenance of the site, scheduled for Monday night, until a time when Iran was in bed. They cited “the role Twitter is playing as an important communication tool in Iran”.

“Don’t listen to any announcements of the rally being cancelled today. Just be calm, and don’t fight with the Basijis [riot militia],” wrote one user early on Tuesday evening, Iranian time. Then: “Rally is on. Silent, calm, and peaceful.”

At 10pm local time he wrote that people had been receiving automated calls intended to scare them, in which they were told, ominously: “You have participated in the protests.”

The technological fightback by the Iranian authorities has been spirited. Though the internet is more difficult to block than mobile phones, censors were yesterday closing successive servers through which the site was accessed, leaving Iranian web users relying on “proxy” or parallel servers, scores of which were being set up on their behalf, often from outside the country.

Well-meaning Twitter users across the world changed the settings of their own accounts to suggest they were in Tehran, while others created repeatedly rebooting links to Iranian government websites in the hope of crashing them.

Still others “retweeted”, or forwarded, the details of the proxies (a numerical code) in a frenzy of Twitter’s equivalent of spam, despite the pleas of Iranians who saw their servers being shut down shortly afterwards.

These are perhaps dangerous times to draw attention to yourself in Iran, however, and as the assault on Iran’s technologies intensified — with reports of Gmail, Yahoo and instant messaging services blocked — web users became nervous. (In fact, both Microsoft and Yahoo suspended their services in Iran yesterday in protest.)

Several Twitter pages that had attracted a high profile were abruptly disabled by their users, with a number appealing for their usernames not to be published as it could endanger their lives.

Usernames have been changed in this article.

And the site’s huge, protean form has proved to be its greatest challenge in the crisis: it is almost impossible to verify the provenance even of pages that appear plausibly official, and traditional media have used unsourced material from the site with extreme caution.

One poll, two verdicts, 10-million suspect votes
Four days after Iran’s presidential elections, there remained a yawning gap between the two competing versions of what actually happened.

Official results gave 63% of the vote to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and 34% to Mir Hossein Mousavi, the strongest opposition candidate, with tiny votes going to the two other contenders.

The Mousavi camp say the true result — allegedly leaked by the interior ministry — had its candidate winning more than 60% of the vote. The quarrel is therefore not over a handful of stuffed ballot boxes or a few contentious provinces, but over more than ten million votes.

Since the controversial and hasty crowning of Ahmadinejad only hours after the polls closed, the numbers have been subjected to intense statistical scrutiny by experts around the world, but so far no “smoking gun” has been found hidden in the numbers, and the debate is as fierce as ever.

The strongest independent support for Ahmadinejad’s claims has come from a surprising quarter — American political scientists. Ken Ballen, the head of a think tank called Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, and Patrick Doherty, of the New America Foundation revealed that they had carried out a phone poll across all 30 provinces three weeks before the vote that gave Ahmadinejad a 2-1 lead.

A high-powered political couple, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, who both worked in the Bush White House, endorsed this view, also pointing out that his official share of the vote on Friday was almost identical to the second round result in 2005. Their widely read article on the matter was entitled “Ahmadinejad won. Get over it.”

Yesterday, this analysis came under criticism from other specialists. Nate Silver, an electoral guru, pointed out that while the Ballen-Doherty poll had indeed revealed a 2-1 preference for Ahmadinejad over Mousavi, it had not given the president a majority. In the poll 27% said they did not know which way they would vote, and 15% refused to tell the pollsters.

For the official result to be accurate, the president would have to have won an overwhelming majority of these floating voters, even though a majority of those questioned in the Ballen-Doherty poll expressed views that suggested they were not natural Ahmadinejad supporters. Nearly 70% favoured Iran working cooperatively with the US to end the conflict in Iraq, and only 28% thought that the president had fulfilled his election promise to “put oil money on the tables of the people themselves”.

But Mousavi supporters say opposition election monitors were excluded from polling stations before the vote and the Supreme Leader’s declaration in Ahmadinejad’s favour the same night broke election rules that allow for three days of counting and verification. Only a new vote with new rules and independent monitoring is likely to end the argument, and so far Iran’s ultimate rulers have refused to contemplate such an outcome. —

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