The Revolution Will Be Tweeted: How Cyberwarriors Are Foiling Iran's Information Crackdown
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Editor's note: Austin Heap is a 25-year-old cyber activist in San Francisco who is helping to provide Internet connections for the opposition in Iran. Since Friday’s presidential election, Iranians have been using social networking sites like Twitter to organize demonstrations. As the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attempts to shut down Internet access, a community of cyber warriors is fighting back.
SAN FRANCISCO -- It all started at 10:40 p.m. on an otherwise quiet Sunday night. After talking about the Iranian election on and off for several hours, I saw a tweet (a message on Twitter) that pointed out CNN’s failure to cover the story. As an obviously rigged election in one of the world’s most important countries was being perpetrated, America’s oldest 24-hour news network was reporting primarily about how confusing the new-fangled digital TVs were.
“Dear CNN: please report about Iran, not Twitter. #cnnfail #iranelection,” a user by the name of nympholepsy wrote. The dual hashtags (the pound symbol before a subject, which allows users to search for all tweets on the topic) opened the door for me, a 25-year old who had never even traveled to the Middle East, to become an activist in Iran.
It was probably the tag #cnnfail that appealed to me at first. In 2000, the first presidential election for which I was truly cognizant, I watched as legitimate claims of voter suppression in my native state of Ohio and across the country were ignored by the mainstream media as conspiracy theories.
If the media failed, the populace was complicit. There were no protests that rocked the stability of our government, no mass movements against the subversion of our democracy.
But the other tag, #iranelection, did not have the luxury of our delusion. Even before the ridiculously lopsided results were released, opposition headquarters were sacked, dissidents arrested. The government of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to minimize the threat of any opposition leaders organizing a revolution against it. Unfortunately for them, this revolution did not need figureheads to lead it. The Ayatollah had not read the lessons of Moldova, where protestors used sites like Twitter to organize mass protests in April against the Communist government.
Through the power of social networking, individual Iranians were also able to mobilize each other. Twitter hashtags created an instantaneous collectivity that could never be created by mainstream media. When the government realized what was happening, they tried to shut it down. Members of the tech community across the globe did what they could to support it. We started posting functioning relays (or proxies) through which Iranians could subvert government firewalls.
The spontaneity of the tech movement was also one of its weaknesses. With so many updates at #iranelection, it became hard to tell which relays were working and which were not. I started monitoring all of the proxies and created a webpage that listed which proxies were functioning. I asked people I had never met to send messages to me on Twitter to let me know the status of each proxy. And they did.
But that information was public. Anyone on Twitter could find it. Anyone could access the page I had created. When Iran’s Guardian Council began monitoring tweets, other members of the community reported it to me. We had to adapt instantly in order to maintain the ability of the Iranian opposition to mobilize. I quickly set up a secure page. Instead of asking people to send me relays publicly, I now asked for them to be sent via Direct Message or e-mail. They came in a flood.