I have a piece up on the Christian Science Monitor website looking at how the repressive conditions in Iran, particularly regarding internet censorship, have made the country ripe for a new-media driven protest movement. The piece also tries to get a handle on just how much of what's happening in Iran can be placed on Twitter and other social media applications.
From the article:
Before Iran, there was Moldova, which had its own (unsuccessful) "Twitter Revolution" back in April, when young activists used online tools to coordinate protests against the country's dubiously reelected Communist government. In Egypt, meanwhile, a new generation of activists has come to embrace Facebook and Internet-based social networking applications to protest (again, mostly unsuccessfully) their repressive government.
But new-media experts say that Iran's civil resistance movement is unique because the government's tight control of media and the Internet has spawned a generation adept at circumventing cyber roadblocks, making the country ripe for a technology–driven protest movement.
"This is a country where you have tens of thousands of bloggers, and these bloggers have been in a situation where the Internet has been filtered since 2004. Anyone worth their salt knows how to find an open proxy [to get around government firewalls and filters], knows how to work around censorship," says Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Cambridge, Mass. "The Iranian government, by filtering the Internet for so long, has actually trained a cadre of people who really know who to get around censorship."
As the government has cracked down on everything from cellphone service to Facebook, Twitter has emerged as the most powerful way to disseminate photos, organize protests, and describe street scenes in the aftermath of the contested June 12 election. Iranians' reliance on the social-networking tool has elevated it from a banal way to update one's friends in 140-character bursts to an agent for historic changes in the Islamic Republic.
Iran exercises strict control of both the Internet and the mainstream media. In its 2007 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 166th of 169 countries, worse than authoritarian regimes such as Burma and Cuba, and only better than Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea.
And while 35 percent of Iranians use the Internet – considerably higher than the Middle East average of 26 percent – the Iranian government operates what has been described as one of the most extensive filtering systems in the world........Some experts, though, warn about overstating the role that new media and technology can play in organizing a successful protest movement.
In the Molodovan case, although Twitter and other new-media technologies might have helped in organizing protests against the country's rulers, the movement fizzled quickly. On the other hand, although the successful 2004 Orange Revolution was helped along by the use of the Internet and mobile phone text messaging, a Berkman Center study found that: "the Orange Revolution was largely made possible by savvy activists and journalists willing to take risks to improve their country."
"You have to be careful about not being too enamored about technology," says Peter Ackerman, founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington. "It's sexy and it's fun and we can relate to it, but unless there's a strategy for creating loyalty shifts to the other side ... and a set of goals everyone can unify around, you're not going to get to where you need to be."
But while he cautions that it would be incorrect to credit Twitter and other new media with sparking the mass protests in Iran, Ackerman does see them as playing an enabling role to a movement that he says could ultimately be successful – particularly as it moves outside Tehran.
You can read the whole article here.
(A woman using her cell phone in Tehran on Tuesday -- photo by Reuters)