[This post is from a VPR commentary I gave 6-18-09]
A few days ago I found myself in the middle of the Iranian protest against the re-election of President Ahmadinejad. At least virtually. And the experience has left me with great hope for democracy around the globe.
As almost everyone knows by now, the Iranian people had a presidential election. The incumbent Ahmedinejad, bane of the West, had a big lead until his challenger, Mousavi, caught fire and began to look like a sure winner.
On election, night, however, the government declared Ahmedinejad the winner by a big margin. The opposition cried foul and rose up in protest.
Now keep in mind that this is Iran. Protest is risky, if not life threatening.
But the Iranians did protest and when the government tried to cut off all conventional means of communications, Iranians found alternative ways to tell their story, this time through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and other social media sites.
The first thing I noticed was a topic trending up on Twitter, the phrase IranElection, which I began to follow. Suddenly, I was transported via social media to the University in Teheran, where defiant yet frightened students were sending live Tweets describing how they were under attack. Iranians posted pictures and shaky cell phone videos showing government agents opening fire on public dbemonstrators and it was hard for me not to duck behind my desk.
I listened in as they warned other Iranians as to danger spots, worried about injured friends, and plotted about getting out of one part of the city and into the other. And as I watched, listened and read, I forwarded their stories to people I knew, to show how brave and determined they were.
Soon, all of this began to have an impact here. People started Tweeting that CNN wasn’t reporting this so CNN pumped up its coverage. Twitter itself canceled a planned maintenance last Monday after getting pressure from Iranian and US Tweeters to not shut off the protesters’ main outlet. When the Iranian government shut off Internet access, people around the world set up new servers for the protesters to communicate through.
It has been inspiring to see the democratically deprived people of Iran challenge the ayatollahs’ stranglehold on information and censorship. And thanks to social media, everyone in the world is watching.
Even though a change in government won’t magically turn Iran into a US friendly nation or cause them to give up their regional aspirations, I still I hope the Iranians succeed - if only for the sake of democracy.
Because I like to think that social media may be doing for today’s democracy what Tom Paine’s printing presses did for Americans in the 1700s: giving people everywhere the power and freedom to challenge those who abuse power. Because this time, the revolution will be tweeted.