Lentis/Twitter and other social networks in the Iranian protests of 2009
Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and internet blogs were instrumental in organizing the 2009 Iranian Protests and facilitating Citizen Journalism. By resorting to social media, Iranian citizens altered the balance of power formerly dominated by government organizations, using content such as videos of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death to organize social protest and to show the world stories of their plight. 
Following the announcement that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the 2009 election, major protests began all across the major cities of Iran. Initial results claimed that Ahmadinejad had won the election with 62.93 percent of the vote, while opponent Rezaee Moussavi received only 33.7 percent of the vote.
Moussavi and his supporters disputed the validity of the results by pointing to a number of voting irregularities. An employee of the Interior Ministry told the New York Times that the government had been preparing to rig the vote by removing any workers who were not loyal to the Ahmadinejad government. Turnouts of more than 100 percent were reported in at least 30 Iranian towns, and turnouts of 95 percent or above were reported in at least 200 polling stations . Former Iranian interior minister, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, said that 70 polling stations had more completed ballot papers that the number of eligible voters in those towns.
On the other hand, the government claimed that the election was legitimate and went as far as to threaten anybody who would question the sanctity of the Iranian democracy. Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, a representative for Iran’s Guardian Council, explained that the voter turnout of above 100 percent in some areas is a normal phenomenon.
Opponents of Ahmadinejad were not convinced by the government explanations and moved to the streets to protest the unfair election. James Phillips, Heritage Foundation Middle East Expert, explains that “[The election was] essentially a referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's embattled leadership, which has produced economic discontent, international isolation, and greater restrictions on personal freedom." In other words, many Iranians were dissatisfied with Ahmadinejad government and were hoping the election would give them an opportunity to change the direction of the country. Once they felt that their democracy and form of power had been violated, they took to the streets.
Iranian authorities tried to control the protests by censoring and controlling information. Authorities banned foreign journalist from leaving their offices to cover the street protests. The government tried to jam satellite transmissions of the BBC’s Persian channel and to censor reformist newspapers. Al Jazeera reported that some newspapers were given notices to modify their headlines or even their editorials.
Although initially peaceful, protests were met with a violent crackdown by the government. Four days after the election, seven people were killed during a march in the capital. On June 20, State television reported that 450 people were detained and 10 people were killed during the clashes between protesters and police.
Amidst the violence of a government crackdown, Neda Agha-Soltan became the symbol of the opposition movement after graphic footage of her death was recorded with cell phones and spread around the world through the internet. Hamed, an Iranian asylum seeker in the Netherlands, received the video from his friend accompanied with the message "A girl has just been killed right next to me." Hamed “published it on YouTube and Facebook and five minutes later it started to get many emails and messages and it published everywhere." Neda’s death quickly became a powerful treat to the Iranian regime as it help galvanize the opposition. As Alireza, an Iranian Citizen, explains “We know a lot of people have died, but it is so hard to see a woman, so young and innocent, die like this.”
Rise of Citizen Journalism
On June 20, 2009, two cell phones recorded the death of a young Neda Agha-Soltan, a student of philosophy at the Islamic Azad University. Almost seven million individuals immediately joined discussions through blogs and Twitter about the circumstances regarding her death. A study done by Kathleen German of Miami University states that this was probably one of the first times in human history that social media acted as both a unifying force for the protestors as well as a means for Iranians to communicate their struggle with the rest of the world. Michael Duran puts it best when he states “The new media raised expectations, taught atomized individuals that they shared exactly the same thoughts and feelings, and created a mechanism for coordinating opposition activities.”
Due to the internet and the accessibility of social media, citizen journalists now have the power to reach vast audiences in a short amount of time. Functioning as citizen journalists themselves, the citizens of Iran effectively gained the ability to operate outside traditionally government controlled media outlets to broadcast first hand videos, pictures, and other news. When regular journalists were forced to flee the country, citizen journalists through Twitter and other media became a window for the world to view first-hand the horror of the protests in Iran. Citizen journalists are unlike professional ones in that they are not trained and are often not impartial. However, their proximity to events makes it easy for them to spread news through social media and mobilize the support of others in their own country and across the world.
In the case of Neda Agha-Soltan, the government at first attempted to cover up her death, claiming that video evidence was fabricated. In spite of this, her death gained momentum in Iran and around the world because of the work of citizen journalists that utilized social media. Mark Pfeifle states, “Without Twitter we might never have known that she lived in Iran, that she dreamed of a free Iran, and that she died in a divided Iran for her dreams.”
While mainstream media such as CNN as well as the government controlled Iranian media failed to spread to spread the news of social unrest in Iran, Twitter and other social media took up the role of informing people of what was going on. In particular, Twitter was used to publicize protests and to bring attention to acts of violence and injustice committed by the government. According to Pew Research, 98% of the links shared on Twitter during the first week of protests were about Iran. Even though the original source and the location of the links were often unclear, the message of the tweets clearly showed the presence of a new form of online activism provided by Twitter and similar technologies.
Twitter had never been used before on a massive scale such as this, giving protesters movement the critical international and geopolitical visibility that they desperately needed. It is important to note, however, that although Twitter was an extremely powerful tool for communication throughout the week of protests, it can’t be proven that it was used as a way to organize protests, but more of a way to motivate people, help them get news, and reinforce their convictions in a way that was never possible before.
As Mark Pfeifle, former national-security adviser puts it beautifully, “Without Twitter, the world might have known little more than a losing candidate accusing the powers that be of alleged fraud. Without Twitter, the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy. They did so because they knew the world was watching. With Twitter, they now shout hope with a passion and dedication that resonates not just with those on their street, but with millions across the globe.”
By the end of the first week of protests, top news links from Twitter offered tips to citizens in Iran for how they could use technology their best advantage. One Twitter user, Arik Fraimovich, started a campaign called “Help Iran Election,” where he asked fellow Twitter users to change their profile pictures to a green tint, the color that represented the social movement in Iran. Within weeks, over 160,000 users had changed their profile pictures. Users who changed their profile pictures also included the message “Show support for for democracy in Iran, add green overlay to your Twitter avatar in just one click.” A petition entitled “Where is My Vote?” asked Google to change its logo to the green tint for a day in order to help support the people of Iran. Although it did not change its logo, both Google and Facebook announced that they would incorporate Persian language into their capabilities in order to facilitate easier communication from within Iran. Unsurprisingly during the week of protests, the most popular videos on Youtube were related to events in Iran, and the blogosphere expressed largely expressed a ton of support for those involved in the protests.
Government Suppression & International Support
The Iranian Government was quick in its attempt to suppress protests, both in the streets and online. Officially, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Guardian Council declared the victory of Ahmadinejad “a divine assessment,” and going against the election was tantamount to breaking the law. Consequently, riot police were deployed with sticks to beat protesters and fired tear gas in attempts to disperse the crowds. Basij forces, a government-backed militia group fired live rounds into protesters, killing several. With strict rules in place against journalists, especially foreign reporters, police cut off footage and even arrested anyone reporting on the situation. The violence extended beyond the public as well; the Basij would track down vocal Moussavi supporters on social media to their private homes and arrest or even kill them in order to cripple the resistance’s ability to organize.
In order to counter online organization and protests, widescale internet and cell service throttling was implemented. In some cases, internet access was completely turned off for hours at a time. Facebook, Youtube, Yahoo Messenger, and multiple other media sharing websites were blocked and/or censored even before the election. In response to social media being used to organize rallies and marches, Ahmadinejad supporters and the Iranian government would post similar events with conflicting times and locations in order to confuse protesters and stop crowds before they could form. They took advantage of the unverified nature of Twitter posts and would distribute false news and updates on the situation in favor of Ahmadinejad .
With “peaceful protest” as the rallying call for the Green Movement, protesters could do little against the physical suppression on the streets aside from endure and care for the injured. Substantive international support from the U.N. and other governments was little to none, with the U.N. even congratulating Ahmadinejad on his victory and neglecting to send a peacekeeping force to investigate the violence in the streets, meaning protesters had no reinforcements or medical support. Over 2000 arrests were made, including over a hundred journalists. Twelve newspaper and journals were shut down within six months of the election. Iran’s official figures put the death toll to be around 30, but independent accounts push the value closer to 100.
International support from citizens and bloggers, in contrast, was overwhelming. Aside from pure encouragement, foreign activists took to archiving and spreading reports from citizen journalists in Iran. Mobile phones with direct messaging allowed routes to form between protesters and outside supporters by bypassing standard media sharing censors. The most linked-to page on Tuesday, June 16th was from Esko Reinikainen, a British blogger, who posted “Cyberwar guide for beginners.” This provided more protesters in Iran the tools to fight back against online suppression; this text among others taught readers how to hide their locations better, keep proxy internet connections alive for longer, and how to initiate DDOS attacks against government websites. The U.S. government even told Twitter to stop maintenance during the protests in order to keep the information flowing without interruption..
The Power of Social Media
In a country where people felt that their power through democracy had been taken away, social media helped fill the vacuum. For one, social media engaged populations outside of Iran in a way that was never possible before. Iranian citizens could feel a powerful sense of communal fearlessness as a result of the support they were getting abroad, through tweets, Youtube videos, blogs, and the various campaigns that sprung up. The most powerful effect of social media is probably the speed at which news and ideas can be spread. Even though that makes it easy to spread fake news, what was seen inside of Iran was that social media provided part of the incentive for individuals to stand up in the fight for change, as they could easily spend a few minutes on the internet and determine that there were many others who were inclined to unite for a common cause. In Iran, participants on the ground mentioned that the spread of content across the internet directly motivated them to participate in the demonstrations despite all risks. By communicating through social media, citizen journalists earned the power to dispute the 2009 election.
As in the Iranian presidential protests, social media was a factor but not the main cause of the Arab Spring’s revolutionary wave of 2010-2012 . Dewey et al. argues that the failure of governments in the Middle East and North Africa to reliably provide public goods such as food and fuel might have triggered unrest and increased dissatisfaction with the autocratic regimes. On the other hand social media, “may have facilitated the dialogue amongst a network of activists who were then able to instigate calls for reform; social media may also have directly helped in protesters’ ability to organize and coordinate their activities.” This is similar to Iran’s protests where the main reasons for the social unrest were dissatisfaction with the results of the election and feelings of disenfranchisement, and where social media was a powerful tool protesters use to communicate and organize.
Opportunities for Further Research
Future collaborators for this chapter may explore data concerning internet and cell phone traffic and the relationship with levels of social unrest before and after the election. In addition they might delve into the technical aspect of state internet censorship and surveillance and the protesters’ defensive cyber strategies.
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