Iran's Twitter Revolution Ahmadinejad's Fear of the Internet

With the Iranian authorities cracking down on the international press, the West is reliant on the Internet to find out what is happening on the ground. Hard as it might try, it will be difficult for the regime to easily stop the flow of information online. Web users around the world are rallying behind the protesters.
Von Christian Stöcker, Carolin Neumann und Thorsten Dörting

Even before the protests over Iran's disputed presidential election  began, it was clear that the Iranian regime feared the power of the Internet. But now an open war has broken out between the government and its security forces on the one side and protesting Web users on the other. Web sites are being blocked and Internet access in general seems to be more difficult -- or even paralyzed.

On Wednesday, a senior spokesman for Iran's military issued an open threat against bloggers and Web site operators in the country: Content which could "create tension" must be removed immediately, otherwise there would be legal consequences.

Iran's rulers are afraid of the Internet partly because it is one of the main tools being used to organize mass protests and also because it undermines -- at least partially -- the current heavy restrictions on the international media in the country.

Within just a few days, a totally new symbiosis of "old" media and explicitly partisan "citizen journalists" has emerged. Given the crackdown on the international media, there is no other way to get the news out of the country: Western journalists who are still in the country are being threatened and are not allowed to leave their offices or to report from the streets of Tehran. Some are even being expelled from the country, like SPIEGEL ONLINE correspondent Ulrike Putz, who had to leave Iran on Monday.

But it's evidently proving harder to quell the information flow out of the country on Internet sites such as Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Picasa, to name just a few sites being used by protesters. The micro-blogging site Twitter,  which allows users to send messages of up to 140 characters and which has special feeds such as "#IranElection" devoted to the issue, remains an important tool, despite growing fears of infiltration by the Iranian secret service. It is hard to effectively block access to the platform, as it can be accessed through various different applications, including ones that run on mobile phones, as well as via the Web site. The service is a labyrinth with many entrances and exits.

The Global YouTube News Bureau

Meanwhile the video-sharing platform YouTube has declared itself to be a mouthpiece for the protest movement. An entry on the official YouTube blog  shows clear sympathy for the protesters and links to a YouTube channel dedicated to protesters' videos. "In essence, YouTube has become a citizen-fueled news bureau of video reports filed straight from the streets of Tehran, unfiltered," writes the YouTube blogger.

Admittedly this is excellent PR for the Google-owned platform, but it is also true. The same applies to many other platforms on which images, texts or drawings can be published. The situation in Iran is such that the supporters of the two main camps can be clearly distinguished through their appearance alone. Supporters of the defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi tend to wear Western clothes and also stand out through their green protest flags, armbands or headbands, green being Mousavi's symbolic color. They can hardly be mistaken for member of the militias loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who often have beards and don traditional dress.

So far there has been very little discussion about the authenticity of the images, like that which took place in connection with the riots in Tibet in early 2008. Nevertheless, the photos and videos from Iranian demonstrators' mobile phone cameras exhibit familiar problems: It is sometimes difficult to see where the footage was shot and what exactly is going on.

At the same time, the entire international media are now relying on material from amateur sources -- material which was once viewed with much skepticism -- because there are hardly any other images coming out of the country and the world is desperate to see what is happening on the ground.

Admittedly photo agencies have already been using amateur shots for some time. Reuters, for example, operates the platform YouWitness, while Getty Images recently teamed up with Flickr, the mother of all photo platforms. Photo agencies using amateur pictures generally take great pains to make sure that the photographers are really who they say they are, and that the picture actually shows what it claims to be showing. This makes the agencies more reliable -- but also much slower. Compared to the overflowing sources of the so-called social media, fact-checked news appears to be moving in slow motion.

Unverifiable Citizens' Journalism

Even German TV stations, which are subject to the same strict limitations as other media, can no longer get by without using YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and other sites when reporting on the Iran protests.

Internet video footage is particularly important at the moment for the German news channel N24, says the station's editor-in-chief, Peter Limbourg. "We told our correspondent on Monday to completely stop reporting, in order not to put herself in danger," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. As a result, the station is now short of footage and is forced to make up the shortfall by using material taken from news agencies, YouTube and social networks. "However, we cannot prove the authenticity of the material," said Limbourg.

Neither the material from the Internet nor from Iranian state television reports can be independently verified, says Burkhard Wennemar, an editor on the foreign desk of the commercial German TV station RTL. Nevertheless, he says, "media such as YouTube are becoming increasingly important for reporting in such cases," adding that it is essential that it is pointed out in reports that information from, say, Twitter is not verifiable.

"At the demonstrations, every second person has a mobile phone in their hand and is taking pictures," journalist Antonia Rados, who is reporting from Tehran on behalf of RTL, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's incredible." At the protests, the mobile phone network frequently goes down after half an hour, she explains.

"We are following the discussions on the social networks very carefully," Elmar Thevessen, the deputy editor-in-chief of the public German TV station ZDF, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Images are only used if we are able to determine authenticity." In exceptional cases, and only in when the contents are highly plausible, the network said it uses images if supporting material from multiple source can be found that seems to corroborate the events. In such cases, he said it was essential to disclose that the authenticity of those images could not be 100 percent verified. Decisions on whether particular footage can be used or not, he said, are made by senior editors.

Peter Mezger, a correspondent for German public broadcaster ARD, has not been allowed to leave his hotel room in Tehran for several days. His reports currently rely on footage from Iranian state television, with other material coming from agencies, archives, or from the Internet. Karola Baier from the foreign desk of Bayerischer Rundfunk, which is part of ARD, says that they would naturally prefer to use original footage, but at the moment there is no other option than to fall back on YouTube videos.

Around the world, efforts are being made to make sure that the flow of information through the Internet is not disrupted. Many Web users outside Iran have taken it upon themselves to support the Iranian protest movement. Users are continuing -- albeit in more discrete ways than at the beginning -- to pass on the addresses of so-called proxy servers that give Iranians the opportunity to circumvent the regime's censorship. Projects intended to provide additional access for Iranian Internet users or to increase their security are springing up at a great rate.

One blogger who has collected a list of tips  for promoting free speech in Iran explains the motivation of the global community of supporters: "Whether we agree or disagree with any given Iranian citizen, they ought to have the right to express their views."