While we’re used to hearing cliches about the power of the Internet, usually in stentorian tones, the events in Iran in the last few days have shown true Internet disruption often comes from the most surprising sources and history can be shaped by what is often perceived as the most frivolous of online services.
Mobilization for the anti-government demonstrations in Iran has been driven by Twitter, the 140-character short message service, which has proved resilient while the mullahs have tried to block or shut down more high-profile web sites and search engines. Up until last week, Twitter, founded in 2006, was barely taken seriously as a means of mass notification. Yet because of the way it works, unlike a website like Facebook, MySpace or YouTube, is extremely difficult for authorities to target. Twitter relies on application programming interfaces (APIs) than are easily installed on PCs and, more significantly, mobile phones. “Tweets” are transmitted as emails or text messages to “followers,” which can number in the hundreds or thousands. Although the Iranian government is doing its best to suppress Twitter, the only way for it to truly stop it would be to shut down all Internet connectivity and mobile phone service in the country—an economic non-starter.
Although President Barack Obama has been criticized for sitting on his hands during the protests, it’s arguable that the state department’s request to Twitter to hold off on a scheduled period of downtime for maintenance, allowing Iranian tweeting to continue uninterrupted, may constitute its own form of 21st century cyberintervention.