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Engaging in Iran, from Miles and Miles Away

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, June 16 2009

Some of us might remember the dawn of the cable news age, when through our TV boxes we were suddenly empowered to see in near real-time the events taking places in lands separated from us by thousands of miles and entire oceans. We could look but not touch, and that distance arguably bled well into the Internet era. Then came Web 2.0, the ethos evolved into do something. We developed an expectation that we could, using our new tools, blur the line between observers and participants. (It's looking possible we'll look back at the last days' events Iran and see the start of Web 3.0 -- on-the-ground historic change through social media, but that's a subject for another post.) In addition to last night's apparently successful #nomaintenance insta-protest against a Twitter service outage, a handful of different actions are bubbling out of the online mix as ways to engage in Iran from afar:

  • Changing your default Twitter location to read "Tehran" or elsewhere in Iran. As profiled below, Twitter pulls location information from whatever users input, and the idea has been flowing through Twitter that others outside Iran might help Iranians somehow evade police filters by switching their locations to read Tehran. But this tactic has another effect -- swamping the flow of Twitter traffic from "Tehran" in aggregators of supposed on-the-scene tweets.
  • Denial-of-Service attacks. We wrote up one attempt to pull down a news site affiliated with the Iranian government, and up have popped DOS guides and services that cluster reboot robots in an attempt to engage in one-click cyber aggression. Here's one example, a off-label use of the Delicious bookmarking service. The question arises, though, about whether DOSs are an appropriate tactic for outsiders to impose on another country's infrastructure. The idea is now circulating on Twitter that these strategic attacks could even bog down the same networks being used by the very protestors the tactic is meant to support.
  • Pushing for people to switch to other hashtags than the main one of #iranelection. Some on Twitter are spreading the word that #iranelection is being somehow blocked in Iran, though the exact mechanism by which that might be done isn't exactly clear. And so the word has gone out to adopt different tweet tags. Can, in fact, a hashtag be blocked? Or is this a misinformation campaign? Unclear. Fragmentation can be a powerful resistance tactic, as we've seen from street protests. But it can also be the start of the disintegration of a resistance movement.
  • Some are trying to herd cats by publishing guides to the #iranelection protests; here's one example.
  • And some are making a bid at solidarity with protesting Iranians by turning their Twitter and other online icons green, as green is both a color with significance and Islam and was a symbol adopted by protestors in the early going. (One example.)

By just about any measure, we're seeing just an overwhelming amount of online information, direction, and action around Iran. Making any sense of it is a real challenge. And as you wade through all these discussions, you come across notes of caution: engaging in Iran, even from thousands of miles away, can carry real consequences. It can't be forgotten that as we take up a mantle of involvement in Iran as journalists, activists, some combination of the two or something else entirely, we're also taking on at least some small measure of responsibility for the lives of the very real flesh-and-blood people there. (Photo of Hormoz Island, Iran by Hamed Saber)

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