How the Internet helps Iran silence activists.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 25 2009 6:27 PM

The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized

How the Internet helps Iran silence activists.

An Iranian woman demonstrator. Click image to expand.
An Iranian woman demonstrator

What happened in Baharestan Square on Wednesday? According to a woman who called in to CNN, Iranian security forces unleashed unimaginable brutality upon a few hundred protesters gathered in central Tehran. "They beat a woman so savagely that she was drenched in blood, and her husband, who was watching the scene, he just fainted," the anonymous caller screamed into the phone. "This was—this was exactly a massacre. You should stop this. You should stop this. You should help the people of Iran who demand freedom. You should help us."

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Clips of the phone call ricocheted across the Web and cable TV. The message was corroborated on Twitter, where a post by @persiankiwi brought horrific news from Baharestan Square: "we saw militia with axe choping ppl like meat - blood everywhere - like butcher - Allah Akbar."* News organizations around the world told of a brutal crackdown—Iran's Tiananmen. But at the same time, other reports suggested the rally was a far tamer encounter. A reader on the New York Times' Lede blog wrote in to say that the protest had been cleared by security forces with minimal violence. The blog of the National Iranian American Council, which has been closely following all the news out of Tehran, published a report from a "trusted source" who said that while the rally was "tense," it didn't match the CNN caller's account. "The moment we stood in one place, they would break us up," the source wrote. "I saw many people get blindfolded and arrested, however it wasn't a massacre."

Over the last couple of weeks, those who believe in the transformative powers of technology have pointed to Iran as a test case—one of the first repressive regimes to meet its match in social media, the first revolution powered by Twitter. Even in the early days of the protest, that story line seemed more hopeful than true, as Slate's Jack Shafer, among many others, pointed out. Since last week, though, when the state began to systematically clamp down on journalists and all communications networks leading out of the country, hope has become much harder to sustain. The conflicting accounts about what happened at Baharestan Square are evidence that Iran's media crackdown is working. The big story in Iran is confusion—on a daily basis, there are more questions than answers about what's really happening, about who's winning and losing, about what comes next. The surprise isn't that technology has given protesters a new voice. It's that, despite all the tech, they've been effectively silenced.

The crackdown in Iran shows that, for regimes bent on survival, squashing electronic dissent isn't impossible. In many ways, modern communication tools are easier to suppress than organizing methods of the past. According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran has one of the world's most advanced surveillance networks. Using a system installed last year (and built, in part, by Nokia and Siemens), the government routes all digital traffic in the country through a single choke point. Through "deep packet inspection," the regime achieves omniscience—it has the technical capability to monitor every e-mail, tweet, blog post, and possibly even every phone call placed in Iran. Compare that with East Germany, in which the Stasi managed to tap, at most, about 100,000 phone lines—a gargantuan task that required 2,000 full-time technicians to monitor the calls. The Stasi's work force comprised 100,000 officers, and estimates put its network of citizen informants at half a million. In the digital age, Iran can monitor its citizens with a far smaller security apparatus. They can listen in on everything anyone says—and shut down anything inconvenient—with the flip of a switch.

We've seen the effects of this control over the past couple days. To be sure, a few harrowing pictures and videos have filtered through Iran's closed net. But they're the exceptions; much of what's happened since the start of the week went undocumented. As the Lede points out, many of the clips now being posted to YouTube were first published last week, before Iran shut down its connections with the outside world. In the absence of fresh videos coming out of the country, people have been attaching new dates to old clips in order to stoke new outrage over the security crackdown.

The dearth of new images isn't surprising. The Internet is not anonymous; in places like Iran and China, whatever you do on the Web can be traced back to your computer. Hackers and activists have come up with many clever ways to elude such monitoring, but for most citizens, posting videos and even tweeting eyewitness accounts remains fraught with peril.

There's another problem with expecting digital movements to overthrow repressive governments. Organizing online—using tools like text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter—requires social trust, a commodity in short supply in a police state. Even in America, we've seen movements that look mighty online fizzle when they hit the ground (see Howard Dean). Imagine how much more difficult this would be if you were sitting in Tehran: You come across a tweet alerting you to a rally this afternoon in Baharestan Square. You'd like to go, but all kinds of fears begin to run through your head. What if they're watching me? Is this rally for real—or is it disinformation? What if I'm the only one to show up?

Other than trying to shut down many parts of the Web, we don't know what, precisely, Iranian security forces have done in response to the online protest movement. It's unclear whether they've actually planted disinformation online or tried to trace images and videos back to their original posters. But the uncertainty itself breeds fear. Several times over the last couple weeks, rumors have flooded the Web that the government had already gotten wise to Twitter and was actively seeding the movement with fake news. It was a stark example of how the psychological repression characteristic of authoritarian regimes—the constant fear, the inability to trust anyone—finds particularly fertile ground online.

Here's another one: On Wednesday, a reader alerted the Lede to an Iranian government Web site called Gerdab.ir, where authorities had posted pictures of protesters and were asking citizens for help in identifying the activists. That's right—the regime is now using crowd-sourcing, one of the most-hyped aspects of Web 2.0 organizing, against its opponents. If you think about it, that's no surprise. Who said that only the good guys get to use the power of the Web to their advantage?

Correction, June 26, 2009: This piece originally misidentified a Twitter user as persianwiki. The correct username is persiankiwi. ( Return to corrected sentence.)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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