Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Iran's Reliance on Twitter

By Jenn

Following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successful re-election last Friday, protests erupted throughout the country, calling for a recount. Protesters believe that the election was rigged, claiming many of Ahmadinejad’s supporters in the last election voted for his opponent, Mir Hossein Moussavi, this time around. The protesters say that the high voter turnout – up by more than 30% since the previous election – is an indication that Iranians wanted to see change in their government. The protests have resulted in reports of injuries, casualties, and riots.

Looking past the validity of the actual results, however, we begin to see the realities of the governmental influence over the Iranian people’s freedom of communication. The government, in an effort to stop large organized demonstrations and dissidence, blocked Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and has disabled SMS text message communication throughout the country.

The administration also restricted international news reporting on the events. Unable to report directly, many mainstream media sites, such as and CNN, have received pictures, videos, and news reports from inside Iran, although they acknowledge that they cannot independently confirm these reports. CNN also assures that they will not identify their iReporters that are inside Iran for safety reasons.

News-starved Iranians are now taking advantage of nontraditional outlets to circulate and receive updates from across the country. Due to Twitter’s broadcast capabilities – tweets are far more public than e-mail or Facebook – and it’s ability to be accessed via the Internet and SMS, Twitter has emerged as a leading resource for those individuals wanting to make their voice heard in the chaos.

Although the government blocked the official Twitter site, many proxy sites appeared, allowing users to access the site via other portals and remaining undetected. Now, as the government identifies and blocks many of the proxy servers as well, Iranian Twitterers found a trap door from an unlikely supporter. The Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a Chinese-led effort to evade the Communist censorship in China, is the Iranians’ best hope to accessing blocked Internet sites, according to New York Times contributor Nick Kristof. The Consortium “doesn’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians”, but could potentially resort to limiting the use due to fear of a server overload. On Wednesday, the server experienced over 200 million hits, representing more than 400,000 people.

New questions have arisen out of the Iranian election protests: What is the role of government in overseeing the Internet? Should access to cell phones, the Internet, and other advanced technologies be considered a human right? New Democratic Network founder and Washington politico Simon Rosenberg poses this question in a recent blog post, wondering if political freedom can exist in a civil society without one’s mobile device. The United States has so far been hesitant to take a position on this, although small steps have been made in that direction.

On Monday afternoon, U.S. State Department official Jared Cohen contacted Twitter, asking that they delay the scheduled maintenance on their site, so as not to disrupt the overwhelming quantity of Twitter streams reporting on the riots in Iran. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey agreed to postpone the update until Tuesday afternoon, which equated to 1:30 am on Wednesday in Tehran.

Reporters and politicians alike have taken this action as a sign that the new administration is continuing to embrace the merits of modern technology. This small interference from the State Department speaks volumes about the United States’ commitment to extend the rights of the First Amendment to those outside of the fifty states. There is currently an “Internet freedom initiative” still pending in Congress; if approved it would allot $50 million in the appropriations bill for censorship-evasion technologies, similar to those the Chinese Consortium is using.

The protests in Iran continue, largely with the organizational assistance provided by modern technology. It is uncertain how long Iranians will remain in the streets, but one thing is becoming clear – the face of oppositional demonstration has been forever modified.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice work, Jenn.

12:18 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at