Social Networking and Iran In a Twitter

Evaluating the Impact of Social Networking Tools on Election Protests in Iran

The US government should pay to attention to the lessons of Iranian experience. Web 2.0 technologies have a potentially important role to play in a range of endeavors related to our national security from public diplomacy to communicating to citizens during catastrophic disasters. 

Government must become practiced in effectively employing these technologies; battling malicious actors online; and ensuring the resiliency of the global open network of debate provided by social networking tools. Accomplishing this three-fold mission demands the US government provide more attention to the professional development of its workforces; the role and responsibilities of federal agencies for turning Web 2.0 into Government 2.0; and develop more robust public-private partnerships.
Disputed elections results for the Iranian presidency triggered a wave of protests. Extensive media coverage highlighted the role of social networking, both in helping organize activities and sharing the progress of events around the world. The use of e-mail, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social networking tools (often collectively called Web 2.0) to facilitate discussion, debate, and the exchange of ideas on a worldwide scale is well-established phenomenon.[1] Nevertheless, the cyber-activism around the Iranian protests was unprecedented, driving the global debate while governments and the established media struggle to keep-up. Though the confluence of events in Iran (rather than just the use of Web 2.0 alone) account for the dramatic events playing out in the streets of Tehran, there is little doubt that social networking technologies proved themselves a prominent component of “main street” communications.

How protesters and others employed social networking tools illustrate both the opportunities and obstacles of Web 2.0.  On the one hand, “citizen reporters” found they could share often riveting stories globally in minutes. On the other, trolls, rats, sock puppets, and other malicious online actors sought to spread disinformation. The war strategies in the streets spread to an online war strategies of words. Internet warriors battled for information supremacy as well as combating the Iranian government’s efforts to limit access to the World Wide Web. The interaction illuminates the key challenge of employing social networking—information assurance, ensuring the right information gets to the right person at the right time so that they can take the right action, while making sure that the information provided is credible, understandable, and actionable.

The US government should pay to attention to the lessons of Iranian experience. Web 2.0 technologies have a potentially important role to play in a range of endeavors related to our national security from public diplomacy to communicating to citizens during catastrophic disasters. Government must become practiced in effectively employing these technologies; battling malicious actors online; and ensuring the resiliency of the global open network of debate provided by social networking tools. Accomplishing this three-fold mission demands the US government provide more attention to the professional development of its workforces; the role and responsibilities of federal agencies for turning Web 2.0 into Government 2.0; and develop more robust public-private partnerships.
The street journalism which propelled the Iranian election protests into global headlines began within hours of Ahmadinejad’s victory speech. At the outset of protests, documentation of events appeared on Web Sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Flickr, as well as being distributed in blogs and emails. In turn, mainstream journalist sources including cable news outlets such as CNN and Fox News relied on this reporting as both content and a guide to their coverage of events. In turn, conventional media coverage alerted the world to the extensive use of social networking which further heightened the demand for street news. Furthermore, street journalism facilitated the use of social networking in three ways to inflame social dissent.

Social Networking: Mobilizing the Diaspora

In 2006, the Iran Diaspora was estimated to be between 2 and 4 million.  According to a report by the US-based Migration Policy Institute, Iran emigrant population is “extremely heterogeneous with respect to ethnicity, religion, social status, language, gender, political strategies affiliation, education, legal status, and timing and motivation for departure (ranging from political strategies to sociocultural to economic).”[1]  The largest concentration of Iranians outside of Iran, “the report finds, “reside in the United States, followed by Canada, Germany, Sweden, and Israel (see Table 3); the United States is home to more than three times the number of Iranian born living in Canada, the country with the next largest Iranian-born population.”[2] This population has a well-established presence on the Internet. Not surprising, since the US and other major countries holding concentrations of the Iranian Diaspora have some of the highest-percentage of Internet population usage in the world.

The Iranian Diaspora is also well represented on social networking sites. For example, a study in 2005 of popular multinational online community called Orkut reported the site listed 11.4 million users. Iranians were about .34 million, the third most common nationality on the list. While many users were in Iran, the service was a popular to reach out the global Iranian Diaspora.[3]

Outside of Iran a number of Diaspora web sites served as portals for accumulating and disseminating information about the election protests. A case in point is the Tehran Bureau which is described on its web site as “an independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian Diaspora.” The web site was established as an online news magazine only a few months before the election. Its editor in chief is Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, who was born in Iran but emigrated to the US as a teenager. She along with most of the sites editors are professional journalists. During the protests the site’s blog-style format included work from participatory journalists, as well as commentary, photos, and video.

Social Networking: Organizing the Activists

Social networking outside of Iran was probably key to the explosive reliance on these tools. With restricted access, slow Internet service, and limited knowledge of events inside country as well as the international response to events from the government media, activists outside the country helped facilitate the transfer of information. Blogs, for example, offered advice on how to set up proxy servers to help shuttle information in and out of the country.[4] The Translation Initiative for Iranian Protestors web site recruited translators and solicited English translations of information out of from e-mails, YouTube videos, Facebook, news stories, and press releases began posting materials within days.  The original Farsi-language material and the English translation were posted on a Wiki (a web site where software allows multi users to create and edit a web page as well as track changes made to the page).[5]

Numerous other web sites were set up as an information clearing house including funneling details about the location of future protests, posting warnings on government crackdowns, and sharing updates of individuals injured, killed, arrested or missing. According to the World Security Network, for example, “[o]ne example of an Iranian-founded social network group is ‘100 million Facebook members for Democracy in Iran’, which can be found on Facebook. In only a few days this group found 150,000 members that created 108,000 board topics, 1,759 wall posts, 6 videos, 496 photos and 1,098 links. And it is growing as everything is just a mouse click away.”[6] In fact, the expansion of information on the protests was remarkable. A Google search on the keywords “Iran election protests,” on June 28 returned more than one million results.

Social Networking: Fighting Information Warfare

In addition to facilitating the distribution of street journalism, mobilizing and organizing political strategies activities, social network tools were also employed to conduct information warfare. These activities ranged from identifying and blocking to disinformation to disseminating propaganda, and obstructing the Iranian government’s use of the Internet.

The problem of intentionally posting malicious information on social networking sites has long been recognized. There is a continuous debate among social networking leaders about the most efficacious manner for dealing with trolls (users who intentionally post inflammatory, controversial or offensive information), sock puppets (a deceptive online) identity, vandals (posting false, extraneous or nuisance edits to wiki pages) and rats (posting malicious software programs) as well as other efforts to subvert online content.[7] Some argue that the great strength of social networking is that it creates “open” systems that allow self-correction. Individuals can more readily challenge inaccurate information and offer corrections. Recent research finds, for example, that Wikipedia maintains a high level of accuracy even though editing of its online entries is open to anyone.[8]

During the Iranian election protests, social networking sites attempted to address the problem of misinformation. Twitspam, for example, on June 17 set up a web page titled “Fake Iran election Tweeters.” The page contained a list of “possible fakes accounts and may have connections to the Iranian Security apparatus.” The site added, “This post will be updated as fake accounts are received. For those questioning the information here, we place accounts here that a) post multiple comments of the same sort (i.e. Spam) and b) accounts that are obviously trying to entrap twitter users who are tweeting from Iran or c) those who obviously are trying to spread mis-information.  If we arent 100% sure we will put in it the ‘Suspected’ list.”[9] Media web sites such as Fox News and CNN, vetted information before it posted stories to its news portals or used materials in its cable news coverage. The news and commentary web site The Huffington Post has established citizen journalism publishing standards.[10]

In addition to combating suspected Iranian government disinformation, social networking tools have also been used to organize attacks on the regime web sites and databases. These attacks often referred as “Hacktivism” include denial of service attacks, disrupting web sites and data bases, and distributing malicious or disruptive software.[11] According to an Associated Press report, one team of hackers developed and distributed software to bypass Iranian government censorship software.[12] Denial of Service attacks were also conducted against government web sites including the Office of the Presidency.

Social Networking: Lessons Learned

Claims for the revolutionary power of social networking tools began within days of the protest. Well-known blogger and veteran journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote, “[y]ou cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.”[13] It is, however, premature to forecast a global changing political strategies order based on the anecdotal and unstudied events from the days following the Iranian election. On the other hand, the data that is available does suggest some tentative conclusions.
 Geography Matters

It is probably wrong to assume that the trends and impacts of social networking will map equally well across the globe. The availability of the Internet in Iran (though significant by standards in the Middle East) appreciably trails other parts of the world including the US, Europe, and parts of Asia. Additionally, Iranian infrastructure while rapidly growing does not provide most Iranians access to broadband.  Yet, through the Iranian Diaspora citizen’s achieved global reach out of proportion to the nation’s infrastructure. That suggests nations with large Diaspora populations such “labor frontier” countries including Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Mexico, and the Philippines (which provide much of the world’s mobile work force), as well as states like Iran (with large expatriate populations) could well exhibit online social networking behaviors more similar to nations with high levels of Internet penetration.

Another factor that perhaps made Iran more unique was the character of its civil society. Since government controls state media, Iranians increasingly looked to social networking tools to create a private sphere where they could discuss issues of politics, culture, sports, and religion. Even though government censorship also existed online, Iranians had few inhibitions to employing these tools during crisis, since they were comfortable with them in every day life.
In short, it appears that the character of the society from culture to physical infrastructure are important factors in determining how social networking systems will function as an instrument of crisis response.

Social Networking: The Internet is Neutral

No party can count on a decisive and unassailable advantage in cyberspace. Much of the debate over the impact of social networking centered over whether these tools offered a decisive advantage to the protestors or the government. For example, in The Washington Post, John Palfrey, Bruce Etling, and Robert Faris offered several counterpoints to those who had concluded that the force of online political strategies activism is irreversible. They argued there are, “sharp limits on what Twitter and other Web tools such as Facebook and blogs can do for citizens in authoritarian societies.” Government, they noted, “jealous of their power can push back on cyberspace when they feel threatened.” They also noted that the “freedom to scream” online may actually help regimes by providing a “political strategies release valve.” Repressive regimes can also employ social networking for their own ends, hawking propaganda and spreading disinformation.[14] Indeed, during the crisis the Iranian government exploited all these advantages and in the end was able to largely stifle overt social unrest.

Still, it is probably wrong to credit a permanent advantage in cyberconflict to any single actor.
Technology is always evolving as are the practices of how the Internet is used. For example, the government thought it could maintain permanent dominance of the web by only allowing public users access to slow, expensive dial-up service. That assumption proved wrong. Social networking tools helped dissidents overcome the limitations of the nation’s infrastructure.

It is probably wrong to look at cyberspace as a static contest. Addressing cyber issues begins with the premise that challenges are a series of actions and counteractions between competitors, and inquiring how these competitions might progress in the future. Looking for single “silver-bullet” solu¬tions will not work. There is no technology, govern¬ment policy, law, treaty, or program that can stop the acceleration of competition in the cyber universe.

Social Networking: The Web Can Take It

The world wide web may be more resilient than commonly assumed. Despite Iran’s limited infrastructure, denial of service attacks on both side, and the insatiable global demand for information the Internet held up pretty well. That perhaps should be surprising. A National Academies study that surveyed the capacity of the web to operate in the wake of the 9/11 crisis concluded that the web proved fairly resilient despite the destruction to telecommunications in Manhattan and surge in Internet traffic.[15]  While the number of social networking users online has grown dramatically since 9/11, so has the capacity to respond to the demand. ISPs and social networking sites have both come to expect “unexpected” changes in demand. This was witnessed recently in the wake of the death of the entertainer Michael Jackson. Google experienced a dramatic surge in searches for key words “Michael Jackson.” Initially, it was interpreted as a denial of service attack. Wikipedia shut-down its “Michael Jackson” wiki page for six hours when suddenly hundreds of people tried to edit it.

Additionally, the cyber civil war strategies in Iran also demonstrated the limits of intentionally blocking service or access to web sites. The ISPs that manage social networks also carry on government business as well as the instruments of commerce. If the government had elected a “nuclear option,” it might well have shut down its industrial, energy production, and financial sectors as well as crippling its capacity to control public media. Likewise, in a global economy states or groups that conduct massive denial of service attack could well do as much damage to themselves as their enemy. Thus, a kind “mutual assured destruction” deterrent policy appears to be evolving on the Internet.

Furthermore, since competitors seemed deterred from conducting all-out cyber war strategies it appears that many loopholes remain to allow Internet services to recover. This was demonstrated in the cases of Russian cyber attacks on Estonia and Georgia.[16] In both instances, despite massive denial of service attacks and disruption of government web sites, both nations were able to reestablish the instruments of governance. In the case of the attack on Georgia, for example, other countries, including Estonia, established proxy servers to host Georgian government web sites.

While the Internet may be tough enough in the face of cyber competition it is still at risk to both natural and manmade physical disruptions. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the city of New strategies Orleans lost almost complete access to the Internet. There were no adequate contingency plans to restore service. The problem in the wake of Katrina was lack of interoperable communications. It was the lack of virtually kind of communications.

Rather than merely focusing on protecting systems, the national priority should be ensuring resiliency— the capacity to main¬tain continuity of activities even in the face of threats.[17]Resiliency ensures real security—both physical and economic; a dual approach of protect¬ing against attack and ensuring that if we are attacked, society will continue. Thus, ensuring the resiliency of the global online community against manmade and natural threats remains a subject of concern.

Social Networking: The Rules Work

In his seminal book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky outlines the principles for effective adoption of social networking tools. Shirky’s rules address the nature of the technology, the structure of the social interaction, and the “value” assigned to social networking transactions.

•             Technologies should be old. Shirky points out, “new strategies tools are not always better, New strategies tools, in fact, start with a huge social disadvantage, which is that most people don’t use them, and whenever you have a limited pool from which potential members can be drawn, you limit the social effects.”[18] The preference in social networking is to adopt proven and widely available software and systems.

•             Systems should seem simple. Wikipedia offers an example, Shirky notes, “the basic bargain a wiki offers is that you can edit anyone else’s writings and anyone else can edit yours.”[19]Simple rules and simple operational routines are the hallmark of widespread adoption of social networking tools.

•             There has to be something in it for the user. “[S]ocial tools don’t create new strategies motivations so much as amplify existing ones.”[20] Users are drawn to social network because they believe participation will bring them a benefit that they want.

The Iranian case appears to validate Shirky’s rule set. Even Twitter, among the newest of the social networking tools widely used during the protests is two years old. Additionally, twitter is among the simplest of online communities to participate in. Finally, twitter and other social networking sites were popular in Iran because they provided something people wanted a “space” where they could share ideas with friends and family inside the country and around the world.

Social Networking: Crisis Mis-Management strategiesis a Grave Danger

Information assurance-- knowing that data are precise and reliable, remains the most serious concern with social networking tools. The global debate around the election protests demonstrated that rumors, perfidy, or inaccurate information can be dispersed at least as fast as facts. Web 2.0 can also create “information overload,” burdening the network with irrelevant data that could complicate, instead of facilitate, analysis and decision making. The information age has empowered the scientific as well as the narrative cultures. Information technology allows researchers to conduct more and better analysis, but it also allows opinion makers to spin better, more compelling stories faster and proliferate them more widely.[21]

In social networks, the group itself assumes responsibly for culling out bad data. This includes everything from battling trolls to debating the rights and wrong Sharia law on a religious blog. While this strategic method of adjudicating information may be suitable during normal social networking interactions, there is a real question over whether it is appropriate for “crisis communications.” An effective crisis communication must be credible, understandable, and actionable. Under great stress and limited time, as well as limited information, it is unrealistic to hold that negotiated online interactions are an effective mechanism for determining factual and dependable information. Twitspam offers a case in point. The web site recommends shutting-off suspected trolls, but is not always clear how the decision is made that a particular tweeter is a malicious actor. In its rush to safeguard the site from bad users, Twitspam could inadvertently be subverting the opportunity for individual free expression that it is trying to safeguard.

For Web 2.0 to be used effectively during a crisis situation there must be trusted actors and trusted networks established before the crisis. Only these can serve as an effective backbone for turning a social network into an effective crisis management strategiesand risk communication tool.
Social Networking and Iran In a Twitter
Social Networking and Iran In a Twitter

Social Networking: Washington is not so Hot

The US government is not well prepared to exploit social network tools during a crisis. Washington is well behind in its willingness and capacity to adapt to the world of Web 2.0. Even the new strategies Administration, with a well-earned reputation as “web savvy,” has its troubles. A panel of experts assembled by The Washington Post gave the new strategies Web site an averaged grade of C plus.[22] That grade seemed to track well with administration’s performance. Despite the flood of information driving the global debate as the protests grew, the president remained equivocal until several days into the crisis.

Initially, the president sought to restrain his support for protesters to avoid the charge that the unrest was US-inspired, rather than reflecting a genuine Iranian grassroots movements. He failed. Despite subdued rhetoric from the White House, the administration found itself pummeled by claims of interference, including a charge that innocent bystander had been shot by the CIA to foment a riot.[23]

The government’s online engagement proved equally unfocused and ineffective. Heritage analyst Helle Dale noted, initially most government outreach was limited to the “State Department’s revelation that it requested that the social Web site Twitter postpone its scheduled maintenance operation in the days after the election as protesting Iranians were relying heavily on its service to communicate--causing some to suggest that these protests could end up being called the Twitter Revolution. Undoubtedly, this action was important, but given the resources of the U.S. government, it was hardly proactive.”[24] The lack of effective Web 2.0 engagement represented a lost opportunity for the White House to demonstrate global leadership during the crisis.

The disappointing results are not surprising. While the White House as well as many federal agencies are experimenting with social networking tools, their efforts are unguided by sound research or clear and coherent policies that encourage innovation while protecting individual liberties and privacy. The hierarchical practices of traditional government are not keeping up; they are inadequate for exploiting the explosion of social networking systems.[25]

Social Networking: Next Steps

The preliminary list of lessons learned offers a starting place for national agenda to make the federal government better prepared to employ Web 2.0 technologies during a national crisis.

Start with Strategic Communications

The United States requires the rudimentary backbone for conducting strategic communications in the information age. The White House cannot assemble a better Web 2.0 tool kit without solid foundation to build on. Of all the institutions engaged in national security, foreign policy, and public diplomacy, those engaged in strategic communications face the greatest challenges. Government institutions tasked with strategic communications lack the leadership and resources necessary to do their jobs well in today's ever-changing technology climate and operate with virtually no interagency coordination, let alone the capacity to effectively exploit Web 2.0 capabilities. A new strategies institutional framework and strategy, including the establishment of an Agency for Strategic Communications, are prerequisites for the effective employment of social networking.[26] 

Build a Network Savvy Workforce

Washington needs a proactive professional leadership development plan and research agenda.
The lessons of the election protests illustrate the many complex factors that drive competition in the Web 2.0 world from understanding culture to providing information assurance. To overcome these obstacles, much of the innovation in the social networking environment is based on intuition, guessing, trial and error, and blind luck. That is not good enough for matters of state. Unless, the government develops leaders imbued with the sills, knowledge, and attributes to operate in a network world it will never master the challenges of social networking.

Likewise, Washington must establish requirements for research and development in social networking. While individual initiative, creativity, and experimentation will likely remain the basis for most Web 2.0 applications, Washington requires a sound knowledge in order to adopt responsible policies and programs that facilitate making the best use of innovation. This foundation of research can be built by conducting cutting-edge network science. The government must develop better capacities to undertake multi-disciplinary research of complex networks. Specifically in regard to Web 2.0, government research should ensure the protection of individual privacies and liberties; exploit commercial off-the-shelf technologies; develop metrics to measure the effectiveness of Web 2.0 tools; create information assurance and security procedures, software, and hardware; and develop cutting-edge platforms and software.

Public-Private Partnerships are Essential

Trusted space and relationships as well as resilient infrastructure can only be established with effective cooperation between government and the private sector. These partnerships must focus both on mastering the challenges of effective risk communications during as well as ensuring the resiliency of national and vital global infrastructure. These partnerships should not be “corporatist” collusion between government and big business. The best way to achieve resiliency in infra¬structure is through the free market. The private sector can—and should—play a role in the devel¬opment of resilient infrastructure.  Developing 21st-century infrastructure requires the private sector, whose members are generally well informed on cur¬rent infrastructure needs because of the need to stay competitive.

The US government should look at models such as Pacific Northwest Economic strategies Region (PNWER). PNWER facilitates cooperation through regional issue action plans developed by fourteen working groups corresponding to the region’s key priorities. Each group is co-chaired by an industry leader and legislator. The organization has a statutory basis but all its operations are conducted a voluntary, non-profit, non-partisan basis. The PNWER models works because participants both have trust and confidence in the mechanisms used to develop and implement action plans and commonly value the outputs of the organization.[27]

[1] Shirin Hakimzadeh, “Iran: A Vast Diaspora Abroad and Millions of Refugees at Home ,” Migration Policy Institute, (Septemeber 2006),
[2] Ibid. See also, Ali Mostashari and Ali Khodamhosseini, “An Overview of Socioeconomic strategies of Characteristics of the Iranian-American Community based the 200 US Census,” Iranian Studies Group, (February 2004).
[3] Hazir Rahmandad, et al. “Iranians on Orkut: Trends and Characteristics,” Iranian Studies Group, (January 2006), pp, 1-2.
[4] See, for example, Elizabeth Oppenheimer, “The App World has been a Bit of a Trip,” a post on the blog of The Future of the,
[5] See, for example, the posting of the translation of a June 26, 2009 sermon on the elections by Ayatollah Sayyid Ahmad Khatami , a conservative Iranian cleric and a member of the Assembly of Experts on Translation Initiative for Iranian Protestors,
[6]“Iran: Six Options to Support the Green Flames of Freedom,” World Security Network Newsletter, June 28, 2009,
[7] Andrew Lih, The Wikipeida Revolution: Wow a bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia (New strategies York: Hyperion, 2009), pp. 169-182.
[8] Paper presented by Besiki Stvilia et al., "Information Quality Discussions in Wikipedia," Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at
3912&rep=rep1&type=pdf (May 12, 2009).
[9], “Fake Iran election Tweeters,” (June 17, 2009),
[10] The Huffington Post, “Citizen Journalism Publishing Standards” (April 14, 2009),
[11] For introduction to the origins and development of these activities see Athina Karatogianni, The Politics of Cyberconflict (New strategies York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 121-126.
[12] Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, “Hactivists’ Take up Iran fight as streets quiet,” The Associated Press, 

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