18 June 2009

Twittering from Tehran

What the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was to blogs, Iran's election crisis may be to Twitter: the moment when the value of a new publishing platform as a vital source of on-the-scene updates becomes clear.

The social networking site "has shown itself perfectly suited to a fast-moving situation where there is a thirst for snatches of information in real time," writes the Guardian's Esther Addley.

Foreign journalists have been expelled from Iran, confined to their hotel rooms or forbidden from covering the protests. But web users around the world have turned to their counterparts in Iran, who have become "the eyes of the world."

Twitter has been at the heart of Iran's resistance since last Friday's contested election -- so much so that earlier this week, the site's owners postponed routine maintenance until a time when Iranians, rather than Americans, would be in bed. The U.S. State Department had asked for the change, though Twitter officials say they made the decision independently as awareness grew that "events in Iran were tied directly to the growing significance of Twitter as an important communication and information network."

However, the crisis also has highlighted some of the problems with Twitter. Iranian authorities have been closing servers through which the site is accessed. And the risk of impersonation is high. People outside the country are pretending to be inside, while rumours suggest Iranian authorities are posing as ordinary citizens sympathetic to the government. It is nearly impossible to verify the provenance of Twitter feeds, Addley writes, "and traditional media have used unsourced material from the site with extreme caution."

In addition to Twitter, YouTube has been a critical tool to disseminate videos from Iran, New York Times reporters Mark Landler and Brian Stelter write. The BBC’s Persian-language television channel said that on Tuesday, it was receiving as many as five videos a minute from amateurs, even though the channel is largely blocked within Iran.

"We’ve been struck by the amount of video and eyewitness testimony," said BBC World News Editor Jon Williams. "The days when regimes can control the flow of information are over."

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