I recently completing a paper on the use of social media as a backchannel in natural disasters and political action (to be posted later), and I finished reading Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. My timing, unfortunately, couldn’t have been set up better. Footage of the current protests surrounding the Iran Election are all over CNN – but this isn’t your mainstream video being shown to the world. It is video made by the citizens of Iran, because the Iranian government has shut down foreign media and are censoring what is being shown on their networks. But thanks to information communication technologies and social media, the world has been able to see what is really going on. Pictures submitted by citizen journalists show the streets packed with people, everyone with their phones or cameras high in the air, trying to capture the event to share it with the rest of the world.
The Iranian government has been working to block these social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and now they have blocked internet access, SMS, and soon the phones as well. Iranian protesters are working to report the event while keeping their identities anonymous, afraid of what may happen to them if they are caught. People in other countries are trying to help, as Twitter users change their locations and profiles to confuse the government. As reported on CNN, Internet users outside of the US are sending proxies to people in Iran to give them fake IP addresses that place them outside of Iran. The grassroots efforts that often stem from cyber citizens are working hard combat the government’s efforts to censor the images coming out of Tehran, really turning this into a sort of “cyber war.”
This is not the first time information communication technologies (ICT), social media, or smart mobs have helped spread messages of political activism or shared breaking news with the world. This is one of the first times however, that social media and citizen journalism (or reporting) has become a leading source of information regarding the status of people on the ground in Tehran.
The first time I saw the real power of citizen journalism, whether it was meant to be or not, was after the US Airways flight landed in the Hudson River. The Twitpic of the plane in the water, with passengers standing on the wing, instantly had tens of thousands of views within a few hours. I realized at that point that technology is affecting how we see the world, and how we spread messages through massive networks. This is only one small example of how ICTs are used as a back channel. Hurricane Katrina, the Southern California Wildfires, and even the Seattle World Trade Organization protest. While many people use Facebook and Twitter mainly for social means, soon it will be hard to avoid learning about current events through social media sites. That’s where I first learned about the Hudson River landing in the first place!
While I don’t have very much background on the Iranian election and I don’t want to make assumptions, I do believe the government doesn’t have the right to censor the protest. The police are being very brutal, which has led to disturbing videos of the violence that is occurring. If the Iranian Government thinks that after the protests the problem will just go away, they have another thing coming to them. The protests have been documented and broadcasted to the world, and it will not be forgotten. This is not the last time social media and ICTs will have an impact on political action and natural disasters, and it is the job of scholars (hopefully me some day!) to study the information citizens are sharing and figuring out ways to be more prepared for the next event. The beauty of the Web is that all of this information is archived, and it will be available to analyze for further studies.
To view photos, videos, or information about the #IranElection, check out www.ireport.com or search #IranElection in google, but I must warn that many of the photos and videos are extremely graphic. The web doesn’t have to be censored, so we are really seeing the real picture.