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Iran Roundup: "It Is Your Duty to Report"

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, June 22 2009

Today, some ten days after the disputed presidential election in Iran that sparked a historic period of protests and other acts of resistance there, we'll take another look at what's happening in the context of technology, social media, and digital communications. (Previous roundups are here, here, here, and here.) One strain worth noting today: how the coverage of events circulates around the Internet now that there is an absence of coverage by foreign journalists on the ground in Iran, and the challenges that poses for verifying all that we're seeing, hearing, and reading. Let's have a look.

Powerfully graphic footage of what appears to be the shooting death of a young Iranian woman rippled out across the Internet this weekend before quickly jumping to extensive television and print coverage. (With the warning that the video is indeed graphic, it's available for viewing here.) The text accompanying many of the copies of the footage posted on YouTube offers this description: "Basij shots to death a young woman in Tehran's Saturday June 20th protests At 19:05 June 20th Place: Karekar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi St. and Salehi st. A young woman who was standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot at the girl and could not miss her. However, he aimed straight her heart."

Both a Wikipedia page and a Facebook memorial page set up as a result of the video identify the woman in the footage as Neda Soltani or Neda Agha-Soltan, with the former noting, "The authenticity of the videos, the location of the incident, and the identity of the alleged killer have not yet been independently confirmed by the mainstream media." The hashtag #neda quickly became a trending topic on Twitter this weekend. CNN covers the Twitter response and the New York Daily News' Helen Kennedy calls the woman in the footage, "a potent symbol for Iran's pro-democracy protesters."

Photos circulated via TwitPic claiming to capture the Basij shooter involved and posting his home address. The Gaurdian UK's Matthew Weaver has an interview with a man by the name of Hamed, living in the Netherlands, who Weaver credits with first posting a 37-second clip of the incident to YouTube and Facebook:

Listen!

As has so often been the case in the last week, the question persists: is the inarguably widespread engagement in Iran's events outside the country having any impact within it? On that point, ABC News Senior Foreign Correspondent Jim Sciutto tweeted that, "At today's small demo, protesters carried photos of Neda."

The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Rhoads and Loretta Chao had a provocative report today making the case that the Iranian government is engaging in deep-packet inspection (DPI), a technique that has been of late a subject of much interest and apprehension in the U.K., in their efforts to control how the Internet and other digital technologies are being used in Iran today. Rhoads and Chao report that the technology companies Nokia and Siemens equipped the Iranian government with the DPI-enabling tools. The companies, though, are refuting that claim. (Via Nico Pitney) Nokia posted to its corporate blog that while they have arranged for government authorities in Iran to monitor local voice traffic, "The restricted functionality monitoring center...cannot provide data monitoring, internet monitoring, deep packet inspection, international call monitoring or speech recognition."

Steve Clemons of the Washington Note is having second thoughts about helping to amplify a Twitter'd recommendation that those needing aid in Iran to visit foreign embassies there, in light of subsequent reports claiming that "basij were waiting for them at the embassy entrances." Blogs Clemons, "This intriguing story could be a case of 'twitter fraud.'" On that point of the difficult of confirming the high-throughput stream of information that seems to be characteristic of this distributed media environment with little professional press on the ground, CNN.com writes of this weekend's protests, "Verifiable information was hard to come by. The Ministry of Culture on Saturday banned international media from reporting on the demonstrations unless they receive permission from Iranian authorities. A freelance journalist said it was 'very dangerous' to take pictures."

In that same story, CNN.com reports hearing that protestors were removing their SIM chips from their mobile phones so as to prevent tracking of their movements. CNN also reported that cell phone service was cut off in the area of protests in downtown Tehran after 5:30 on Saturday night.

Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and his supporters seems to be continuing the tactic of making use of his Facebook page to encourage protestors and organize actions (though it probably goes without saying that the reporting on some of these techniques is hampered by the fact that few Western reporters read Farsi). A note on the Facebook page linked to Mousavi reportedly read, "Today you are the media, it is your duty to report and keep the hope alive." New numbers suggest that traffic to Mousavi's Facebook page at Facebook.com/mousavi -- the beneficiary, it seems, of one of those new "vanity" URLs -- has spiked in recent days.

Other players in the Iranian conflict are also making use of their web presences to push out their message. The New York Times' Nazila Fathi and Alan Cowell report that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are using their own website to warn protestors that they faced a "revolutionary confrontation" if they returned to the streets. Fathi and Cowell also report that Mehdi Karoubi, a reform-minded candidate in the contested presidential race, posted to his website commentary on the footage of Neda Soltani, writing of her that she did not “have a weapon in her soft hands or a grenade in her pocket but became a victim by thugs who are supported by a horrifying security apparatus." And YouTube's Steve Grove notes that Iran's state media is keeping up its regular stream of YouTube postings.

Google announced that after being informed via "Tweets, emails, blog posts, message boards, and even an online petition" that there was public interest in satellite imagery of Tehran, they've added a KML layer of the images of the city to Google Earth.

In the midst of this discussion about the impact of high-tech tools in and around Iran, worth noting is that one "old" technology seems to still carry tremendous weight. In a Friday Prayer speech, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei surprised some by denouncing Britain as "the most evil" of the "hungry wolves ambushing and removing the diplomacy cover from their faces." (Here's an English translation of the speech by one "NiteOwl," uploaded to the free text hosting site PasteBay.)

Why Britain? The New York Times' John F. Burns notes that some of the long-held animosity against Britain within Iran comes as a result of the BBC's Persian radio service, as well as a recently-launched companion television station. More recently, the BBC has said that it added two satellites to its services to counteract attempts by the Iranian government to jam their stations. (An interesting April blog post from the University of Southern California's Global Media Monitor highlights a report from Iranian state-run media that the BBC's Persian broadcasts are "more subtle" about their interest in overthrowing the Iranian government than is Voice of America.)

The New York Times Noam Cohen raises an interesting point, though, about what it is about Twitter's architecture that makes it a potentially unique medium of resistance despite Iranian government's attempts to controlling the Internet: Twitter.com is largely window-dressing for an API that is much more difficult to completely stop.

Finally, Forbes.com's Elizabeth Eaves is unimpressed about many of the claims of how central technology has been in the events in Iran. (Thanks Shaun Dakin) "The power of information to save the world has frequently been overrated," she writes, "and it's happening again."

(Photo of a San Francisco protest this weekend by Steve Rhodes)