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Engaging in Iran: The Contested Election, Twitter, and the Response Inside and Out

BY Nancy Scola | Sunday, June 14 2009

In the last day, the reaction to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's supposed re-election as president of Iran with an alleged 62.9% of the vote has been swelling inside Iran and out. We've seen street protests in Tehran, violence there, and a veritable tsunami of information online detailing the facts, figures, and passions surrounding an election that taps into the very heart of how Iranians view the future of their republic. As we saw in Moldova, the idea of a "Twitter Revolution" isn't always borne out by the facts, at least to the extent that the uprising would have not taken place without the tool. At this historic moment in time, it's fascinating to watch -- and participate in -- how a political conflict can evolve online, how those outside the immediate sphere of its influence have a role in the chain of events, and all that interest and passion can feed back into the cycle of how events play out.

With that, there are a few particular threads, themes, and points of interest worth keeping an eye on when it comes to Iran at the moment:

  • There have been mixed reports that Facebook, YouTube, and cell phone networks were blocked by the Iranian government as protests heated up -- a nod of respect, perhaps, to their power in times of protest, particularly in a country where 60% of the population is under 30. The reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi had been making extensive use of all three tools throughout the course of his campaign, which had made real inroads with Iran's youth and well-off. The mobile networks, reports AFP, are government-owned.
  • Twitter has proven resilient, with apparent occasional periods of outage. Some of the tweeters apparently working from inside Iran include @tehranelection/Abdul-Azim Mohammed and @Change_for_Iran. A hashtag to follow is #iranelection. There's also @mousavi1388, but that doesn't appear to actual be the opposition candidate himself, since the tweet stream reported and then pulled back on the idea that Mousavi had been placed under house arrest.
  • A point of focus of Twitter action coming from outside Iran was the lack of coverage of election events by more mainstream news sources, CNN in particular. #CNNfail built up steam over the course of yesterday. It's an interesting development: a somewhat surprising affirmation of the Daou Triangle idea that new media's leverage point is still quote-unquote old media. Are we seeing an acknowledgement that establishment media is still the go-to source in times like this, due to their resources, influence, and access? Or is the last gasp of a dying way of looking at the media ecosystem?
  • Politico's Ben Smith noted that CNN seemed stuck in a programming rut, with Larry King devoted to an interview with the folks behind "American Chopper." The Twittersphere is enormously nimble, and can change focus in a nano-second. TV, at least, isn't quite so free to operate. Relatedly, where Twitter perhaps falls behind is in terms of scale: there's a bandwagon effect that can make the Motrin Moms episode, for example, the most important topic in the world for a certain time period. But here, the historic import of events in Tehran could arguably be said to match the related Twitter swarm.
  • The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney is engaging in a supremely interesting experiment in tracking dozens of sources about the events in Iran. It's what someone in Pitney's shoes -- both reporter and aggregator -- brings newly to the table.
  • The Obama Administration's response to Ahmadinejad's declaration of victory has been somewhat restrained -- not surprising given the volatility of the U.S. relationship with Iran and the complexity of the political scene there, but particulary striking against his recent outreach to the Middle East and its young people in particular. But could the spirited and passionate response of the world (and American voters) compel a more articulated response from the White House? (Sort of a "Get Iran Right" to match the "Get FISA Right" of the campaign season?)

That's a start. What are you seeing out there? (Photo by .faramarz)

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