Iran Fax Project ready to go
By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter
A fax machine in Chicago may become one of the few links for news out of Iran if the government shuts down the Internet.
As traditional journalists are restricted, detained, or expelled from the country, Iranians and others are sending news, photos and video through social media networks and the Internet. But if the Internet is shut down by the government, the Iran Fax Project, which was started by four University of Chicago students and alumni, is prepared to receive news via fax to help keep the information flowing.
Beth Topczewski, one of the Iran Fax Project founders, said the idea is to have people send faxes to people they trust outside of Iran, then have those sources send the faxes to the Iran Fax Project. Topczewski said they will read through the faxes and remove any identifying information before posting to the Internet. She said they’ve contacted local Iranian activist groups, Facebook groups and college groups on campuses in Iran.
The safest and most secure way to communicate news of the protests is through the Internet, Topczewski said, and the Iran Fax Project is encouraging people to continue doing that until it’s no longer an option. She said the faxes are a “last resort” and that they’re trying to get the word out now about how to reach them in case the government shuts down the Internet. Jonathan Zittrain, one of the co-founders of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, told NPR last week that Iran has a central controlled gateway for Internet access, which allows the government to use filters and block Web sites. Hypothetically, the government could pull the plug on the Internet through this gateway.
The Iran Fax Project has received two e-mails and a photo from Iran. Topczewski said one e-mail and the photo have been posted to their Web site and the second e-mail, which was written in Farsi, is being translated.
Topczewski said she and co-founders Andrew Cone, Eric Purdy and Allie Shapiro, came up with the idea after a late night conversation about the elections. The four are “obsessive” news consumers, she said, and became interested in the Iran election protests. Iranians were desperately trying to communicate what was happening to the outside world and Topczewski said they wondered if there was a way they could help. None of the group’s members have ever been involved in grassroots activism. With their computer science and marketing skills, they had the Iran Fax Project Web site up and running within a few hours.
After word started to get out about the site, Topczewski said they received criticism about the insecure nature of faxes, which can be intercepted. In response, she said the faxing method was changed to involve the extra contact between their group and a sender, in case authorities block or trace the Iran Fax Project number. They’re also asking for people to volunteer their fax lines in case the group’s fax number is blocked. Topczewski said there was a rumor on Twitter that the Iran Fax Project was a trap set up by the government and that they’re tweeting constantly to debunk this and encourage people to send them faxes. Twitter has played a big role in their outreach, she said, and once they started adding hash marks to their posts more activists started to take notice. Hash marks are keyword tags that are aggregated into categories and topics that users can search for and follow.
Topczewski, 20, said she didn’t see the protest news communicated through social media as revolutionary until after they started the Iran Fax Project. As someone who grew up with the Internet and these networks, she said it’s easy to take the power of this technology for granted.
“It’s amazing that through social media we can connect with people halfway around the world,” she said.
Topczewski said that she, Cone, Purdy, and Shapiro have each developed their own opinions about the Iranian elections and that the Iran Fax Project didn’t spring from a single political point of view. She said politics, candidates and elections have to be separated from ideals like freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a human right, she said.
A social media revolution?
James Ettema, a Northwestern University media, technology, and society professor, said it remains to be seen whether what’s happening in Iran will be considered a large scale social media movement. Some of it will depend on whether social media networks like Twitter can stay one step ahead of the repressive government to keep the protest movement alive. Ettema said another example of Twitter’s use as a news source came during the attacks in Mumbai, India last November as eyewitnesses reported on the unfolding tragedy.
Looking back at media history, Ettema said “the relationship between technology and social change is definitely there.” In Iran during the 1970s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s used audio cassette tapes to spread his revolutionary messages against Shah Muhammad Reza Palavi, he said. The Shah was overthrown in 1979. Television played a role in the U.S. civil rights movement, Ettema said, by broadcasting images such as police unleashing dogs and water hoses on protestors.
Traditional media is amplifying social media’s rise and importance as a source of information, Ettema said. For example the YouTube video of Neda Soltani’s killing quickly circulated on the Internet and her story was picked up by the mainstream media. Since her death, Soltani has become a symbol of the Iranian election protest movement. Ericka Menchen-Trevino, a Northwestern doctoral student in media, technology and society, said one of the challenges of social media is sifting through the massive amounts of information to find the truth. She said people interested in the bigger picture are turning to bloggers and journalists to make sense of that noise.
But the credibility of social media as sources is something journalists are still grappling with, Ettema said. He said journalist who use social media networks as sources tend to add disclaimers into their stories noting that the information is unverifiable. But if hundreds or thousands of people are Twittering that they are witnessing the same thing, Ettema said it doesn’t make sense for journalists to discredit it. Journalists have traditionally used “man on the street” interviewing for information, he said, and already make these types of judgment calls every day. Ettema said journalists will need to learn to adapt and keep up with social media.
Sidebar: How to Help
Beth Topczewski, an Iran Fax Project Founder, said they’re still looking for volunteers who can translate Farsi and more fax line numbers to receive faxes when they start coming in. For more information, visit http://iranfax.org/.