Sunday, June 14, 2009

Live, from Tehran: Online War I

It’s long been a matter for debate among technology aficionados and the general public: How would the immediacy and impact of communications in the Internet age be directed or manipulated to sway the outcome of a presidential election?

The current government of President Barack Obama, to date the most transformational beneficiary of the Internet era, proves that millions of people working and talking online can build a following and influence a presidential outcome in the United States.

Today, though, on the streets and in the private homes of residents of Tehran, we’re witnessing what may be the opening salvos of the first online war, a conflict in which the combatants are fighting not just with content and ideology, but also with dueling technological actions mean to altogether eliminate the other’s online capabilities.

The clashing forces of loyalists to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those supporting reformist presidential aspirant Mir Hossein Mousavi have, in effect, made Web sites, social media and video cameras parallel warriors — as much the soldiers in this conflict as the Iranian citizens themselves.

This revolution will be televised — as well as e-mailed, YouTubed and Twittered. And it's just getting started.

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For proof, you only have to look at the excellent near-real-time running chronology of today’s events in Iran, a riveting blend of text, video and still images helmed by Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post.

Saturday’s election in Iran, thought to be a bellwether for the Iranian Republic and indicative of a rising disdain for the government's reflexively anti-American rhetoric, pitted Ahmadinejad against Mousavi for the presidency, a post that combines various administrative authorities in a position subordinate to the Supreme Council of ayatollahs who really direct the country’s government. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, but questions remain about the veracity of the outcome.

But to go from Pitney’s chronology, the Iranian government grasped the importance of controlling media inside Iran — or trying to — within hours after the results were announced.

Citing CNN, Pitney reports that at 8:47 a.m. ET, Iran shut down the Tehran bureau of Al-Arabiya, the highly-regarded Arab news channel.

At 2:24 p.m., Pitney relays a reader’s e-mail reporting that the correspondent for German news channel ZDF was forbidden to broadcast, and that German broadcaster ARD was similarly affected, with more ominous results:

… six men from the militia entered the ARD's Tehran office carrying batons and knifes. When they left they took the ARD's technician with them. [ARD correspondent Peter] Metzger said they have not heard from him since.

At 2:58 p.m., Pitney filed an e-mail report, later independently confirmed, that BBC Persia was affected by "heavy electronic jamming." Later, Agence France Presse reported that:
The British Broadcasting Corporation said the satellites it uses for its Persian television and radio services had been affected since Friday by "heavy electronic jamming" which had become "progressively worse." 
Satellite technicians had traced the interference to Iran, the BBC said.

BBC Arabic television and other language services had also experienced transmission problems, the corporation said.

At 3:02 p.m., Pitney reports, via reader e-mail: “Via emailer Nick: The anti-Ahmadinejad Twitter user @StopAhmadi, who has been posting virtually nonstop over the last few days, mounted an apparently successful effort to swarm Ahmadinejad's website and shut it down.

“He's now targeting Khamenei's site,” Nick said, referring to the Web site for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution.

At 3:22 p.m. Pitney relays correspondent reports of an intensifying crackdown on the foreign media. ABC's Jim Sciutto tweets that "police confiscated our camera and videotapes. We are shooting protests and police violence on our cell phones."

Alex Hoder, otherwise unidentified but presumably with NBC, said on Twitter: “NBC offices in Tehran raided, cameras and Equipment confiscated. BBC told to get out Iran immediately. Cell/internet shut down”

At Twitter, @persiankiwi checks in: "tehran is like war zone. it is unbelievable. i have not seen this for 30 years”

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Earlier, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria asked that network’s verteran Middle East correspondent Christiane Amanpour, to distill everything she’d seen last night and today into a few meaningful images. What was the takeaway for her?
“The numbers of people in the streets. The level of discourse. The debates on television. The freedom with which people on the streets were able to debate and say what they wanted to say. The huge turnout. [They] all pointed towards progress and a much more robust participation than we've ever seen in the past, and the people here say they've [haven't] seen since the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago.”

Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess, but it’s safe to say this is only the beginning. From the Web site for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC): “Ghalamnews (Mousavi's newspaper) reports Mousavi is calling for a peaceful march along Valiasr street in Tehran and in 19 other cities on Monday and a national strike on Tuesday.”

Meantime, a You Tube video from Saturday night (found on the NIAC blog) may be the most compelling and symbolically instructive of all. In the video, which surveys the skyline of Tehran, people can be heard shouting from the rooftops across the city: “Allahu akbar!” — “God is great.”

Pitney relates a related message from a reader:

“My next door neighbor is an Iranian immigrant who came here in 1977. He just received a SAT phone call from his brother in Tehran who reports that the rooftops of nighttime Tehran are filled with people shouting … The last time he remembers this happening is in 1979 during the Revolution.”

Watching this video, seeing the firestorm of passion and spontaneous outrage, you can’t help but think of that moment in the film “Network” when, prompted by the viral cri de coeur of Howard Beale, the citizens of New York City storm their porches and balconies to announce their discontent to the world.

This time, though, it’s different. This time it’s not a movie, it’s real life. This time it’s not New York City in the 70’s, it’s Tehran 2009. There’s every reason to think that millions of ordinary people in Tehran, and Iran beyond, are truly mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore.
Image credits: Peace-sign activist: Cycle on fire: Some gutsy videographer in Iran, via YouTube.

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