Iran’s Twitter Revolution

“Everybody try to film as much as poss[ible] today on mobiles…these are eyes of world,” declared a posting on user Persiankiwi’s Twitter page. The poster urged Iranians to take to the streets on Monday, June 15, and document the government-sponsored crackdown against rallies in support of demands by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the primary reformist challenger. Mousavi allegedly lost in an apparent landslide of nearly two-to-one against incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s recent presidential election.

Web-based technology, such as the social messaging service Twitter and online video-sharing site YouTube, have enabled Iranians to document and disseminate to the world images of and information on repression in the wake of the recent election. Through these online outlets, photographs and short films showing police forces beating and bloodying protesters clad in green — the Mousavi campaign’s signature color — have bypassed the Iranian government’s attempts to control Internet access, and are now being viewed from Isfahan to Indianapolis.

More than two-thirds of Iran’s population is younger than 30 years old. The majority of the 70 million Iranians, in other words, are too young to remember the 1979 student-spurred revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah. Although too young to vividly recall the 444-day hostage crisis and resultant fallout with the U.S. government, most of these individuals clearly recall the government-sponsored crackdown on behavior deemed “un-Islamic” during Ahmadinejad’s four-year term. Following the more open policies of his predecessor, Ahmadinejad mobilized “morality police” and other government forces to regulate social behavior, such as dress and conduct in public. Women and the country’s under-30 generation bore the brunt of these acts, which perhaps led to their support for Mousavi, Iran’s prime minister during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, and his promise to enact more liberal policies.

In the 2009 presidential election, energized by Mousavi’s promise to liberalize the country’s social and political life, Iran’s youth effectively leveraged web-based social networking sites and messaging services to organize campaign rallies before the election, coordinate the protests that ensued, and document the police abuses at these protests.

Texting Overtakes Loudspeaker

More than 23 million Iranians have access to the Internet and over 45 million own mobile phones. Tech-savvy citizens use text messages to communicate with friends and browse the Internet — which the government controls in terms of access and speed — for a multiplicity of purposes. Blogging is also immensely popular. Since the country’s first went live in September 2001, Iranian blogs now number approximately 110,000, with authors covering topics from music and sports, to culture and politics. Government officials, both past and present, use blogs as well. In 2001, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president and advisor to presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, became the first cabinet member to blog while in office. Ahmadinejad also maintains a somewhat irregular blog, offering commentary and musings on a variety of topics. Online and cell-phone-based communication has permeated all aspects of Iranian social and political life. It’s not surprising, then, that politics and technology have been inseparable during the last three electoral cycles.

During the 2005 presidential race, organizers disseminated information on campaign rallies and mobilizations via text messages and political blogs, which were also used to discuss key components of candidates’ policy platforms. In the 2009 election conventional forms of campaigning and organizing, such as loudspeakers projecting campaign messages from the back of candidate-purchased buses, gave way to web-based tools. Text messaging was still a key way of organizing rallies in the run-up to and following the 2009 contest, but social networking sites took precedence in this cycle.

In an effort to spur reform-minded voters to vote on June 12, individuals circulated messages such as “If you plan not to vote, just think about June 13 when you hear Ahmadinejad has been re-elected,” via SMS text message. Others posted campaign messages on Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds. Similarly, Mousavi supporters used text messaging and social networking tools to subvert government attempts to hinder and prevent campaign rallies. On June 6, less than one week before the election, a government-influenced organization denied the Mousavi campaign permission to use the 120,000-seat Azadi stadium for a rally scheduled the following day. Many speculated that Ahmadinejad ordered the move, out of fear of the increasing support for his opponent. Whereas in past elections the campaign and its supporters might have conceded to not holding such a rally, in less than 24 hours Mousavi supporters used Facebook and Twitter postings and text messages to get the word out about a 12-mile-long “train of Green” along Vali-e Asr Avenue, one of Tehran’s major thoroughfares.

Recognizing the significance of the Internet and the importance of the youth vote in this election, each of the four presidential campaigns also devoted substantial resources to courting young voters via online tools. Although the Ahmadinejad campaign launched a website to draw supporters into its camp, the Mousavi campaign used the Internet more effectively. In all likelihood, he’s the first politician in Iran’s history to leverage the Internet as his campaign’s most formidable campaign tool. The candidate used Twitter to send out short updates and established a Facebook page to broadcast campaign messages, appealing to Iran’s youth. The government’s decision to shut down Facebook on May 23 — though access to the site was allowed the following day — indicates the Ahmadinejad administration’s wariness of both the power of the youth vote and the influence of such online tools.

Where is My Vote?

On Friday, June 12, two hours after the polls closed, the Iranian state news agency announced that Ahmadinejad won the election with approximately 60% of the vote. The next day, the Interior Ministry confirmed that Ahmadinejad had received 62.6% of the vote to Mousavi’s less than 34%. The Ministry placed voter turnout at a record high of 85%.

In the hours immediately following the government’s announcement of the election results and through Tuesday evening, Iranians of all ages took to the streets with chants of “Down with the Dictator,” and “Where is my Vote?” Demonstrators claimed that the ballots they cast for Mousavi were not counted. A two-to-one margin across the country, they argued, could not have been possible, given the pre-election outpouring of support for Mousavi.

Individuals used online tools to organize protests in the days after the election to demand that the results be annulled. Twitter was vital to these nonviolent actions. User Mousavi1388, for example, tweeted on June 14: “Mousavi asks his supporters to protest throughout Iran from 4pm on Monday 15 June,” while others informed potential participants to “wear black,” “remain peaceful,” and “avoid plainclothes government officers.” Coupled with text messages and postings to the dozens of “Where is my Vote” Facebook accounts — which to date have more than 25,000 members — organizers were able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to a rally in central Tehran on Monday in support of Mousavi and in defiance of an Interior Ministry ban on such actions. Twitter messages provided precise directions on how to meet up with protesters, identified en masse as “sea of green.” Another Tehran-based Twitter user alerted followers of government action against protesters: “Basij now moving with motorcycles in streets trying to scare people to stop chanting.”

After the government revoked press credentials of foreign journalists on June 15, requiring that reporters and correspondents file stories from their offices pending further approval from the government, the need for nontraditional and citizen-driven information sources became even more important. The Iranian government asked foreign journalists to leave and closed some media offices — al-Arabiya‘s Tehran bureau was shuttered for one week — Iran’s citizens filled the information vacuum. Hundreds of videos posted to YouTube depicted streams of protesters filing through the capital demanding a new election, while others showed instances of police brutality. A video titled “Deadly Iran Protest On Camera,” taken and posted to YouTube by an individual in the thick of the day’s protests, captures an incident in Tehran’s Azadi Square, where government forces reportedly shot and killed seven people during a protest demanding a new election.

In a welcome departure from the interventionist policies of his predecessor, President Barack Obama refrained from passing judgment on the election, stating in remarks on June 15: “We weren’t on the ground, we did not have observers there, we did not have international observers on hand, so I can’t state definitively one way or another what happened with respect to the election.” In spite of these comments and the apparently official administration stance of noninterference in the electoral process, the U.S. State Department reportedly asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance to its site, which would have precluded Iranians’ use of the tool for a brief period after the election. It remains to be seen if this action was coordinated or the result of miscommunication.

Ayatollah Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, on June 14 ordered an inquiry into vote-rigging claims put forth by the three losing campaigns. The Mousavi campaign, in turn, rejected this decision and again called for a new election. Whereas Facebook and Twitter are useful tools in organizing campaign rallies and documenting government abuse, the youth of Iran cannot tweet democratic reform or an end to the regime. But the youth of Iran have already scored a victory of sorts by using new media to stake claim to political space. By using new media to extend horizontal linkages and press the current regime, this generation has reinforced the foundation of a potentially robust force for democratic change. While this social networking social movement cannot by itself reform Iran’s institutions, it can continue to employ new tools to push its agenda this week and beyond.

Patrick W. Quirk, a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, is a political analyst based in Washington, DC. He is the author of “Democracy Promotion Doublespeak” and Emotions and the Struggle of Brazil’s Landless Social Movement (VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller e.K. 2008).