Tweeting in Tehran

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:45 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

I admit it. I tweet.

Which is to say, I am a member of the online social network Twitter, and I post “tweets” of 140 characters or less which are then read by all 39 of my “followers.” I’m sure all 39 of those people really care that my air conditioning unit is making alarming noises, or that I sunburned my scalp reading in the park. I joke that a Twitter habit validates one’s existence, but the underlying need is to constantly proclaim, “Hello, I’m here too!”

So, how did all this pointless drivel become so important that the US Department of State requested that Twitter delay critical network maintenance so that the flow of information in Tehran would remain uninterrupted?

The tweets say:

  • Twitter revolution in a nutshell: Anne Frank's diary. Live. Multiplied by millions
  • Set your location to Tehran/time zone to GMT +3.30. Iranian security forces are hunting for bloggers using location/timezone searches
  • The basijis attacked a couple in Shiraz/ Maali abad their house and stabbed them badly.
  • Good Morning Tehran. Mousavi says people should continue demo against "fraud and lies"
  • Confirmed: Reports from Evin prison describe conditions as horrendous. People being tortured. Phone lines to prison are cut off.
  • Please Do Not Respond/Follow New Twitters. Iran Secret Police Is Cracking Down.
  • Road blocks controlling movement of people from North to South Tehran to stop ppl joining Sea of Green #Iranelection
  • Strike, do not go to work, office, shop, bazaar, drive or school

This is not your average day in the Twittersphere.

Advice, scoops, rumors, links, information and misinformation: it all flows through hashtag tracking. #IranElection, #Neda and #Tehran have all been “trending,” or amongst the most used phrases on Twitter. Twitter members of all nationalities are turning their icon photos green, to show solidarity with the Iranian protesters.

There is something thrilling to be sorting through the raw information, the feed of history in real time. But, there is as much real information as there is mis-information.

Even the news networks are in on it. In some cases, the story is not the protests in Iran but the protesters' method of communication with the world. Even though anchors on CNN constantly say that all of this information is unverifiable and unconfirmed, they sell the information like it’s true eyewitness accounts. Which some of it may truly be. But there is doubt. On June 13, one day after the contested elections, there were reports of fake Twitter accountstrapping genuine protesters and sending out false information to the West.

When the Iranian Culture Ministry cut off journalist’s access to the streets of Tehran on June 16, they forced the flow of information underground. So, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, flickr and other social networking, video and photo sharing websites have become the eyes of the revolution. They bear witness when others cannot.  

Twitter has an advantage for protesters because it is more of an online tool than a fully structured and comprehensive social networking site. Users can connect to Twitter and post information 140 characters at a time via text message, the Web and desktop widgets. This makes it harder for the Iranian government to censor. To shut down the tweets, the government would have to cut off a lot more than block the site behind its internet firewall.

The raw Twitter feeds about Iran are more like an abstract painting than a photograph. They take the emotional temperature and give the reader a vague idea of what’s happening now in Tehran. But the flow of tweets out of Iran, constantly repeated by others, has become an emblem of the power of information.

Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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