posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 15th Jun 2009 18:14 UTC
IconFacebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr. All demon spawn from Web 2.0, and we all love to make fun of these websites and the services they provide. However, here in the West, where everything is at arm's length and democracy is something we do not remember fighting for, it's easy to forget that what looks silly and useless to us, can be of the utmost importance somewhere else in the world. Update: I've been informed that the first casualty has fallen at the hands of armed government supporters. Hundreds of thousands of people are now on the streets all over Iran. More updates inside.

Currently, Iran is going through a major upheaval. Last week, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as it's officially called, held its presidential election to find out if the people wanted four more years of ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or if they wanted something else. Ahmadinejad's main opponent is the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi. These elections have led to major problems in Iran.

Ahmadinejad and the government claimed victory, stating 65% of the votes went to him, with 32% voting for Mousavi. These results were immediately disputed by Mousavi and countless political analysts, who claim that the results were reversed, but in a very literal way: Mousavi claims his name has been swapped with that of Ahmadinejad. Mousavi also claimed victory.

The election saw a massive voter turnout of 80%, which seems to favour Mousavi because many reformists who did not bother to vote before, did go out and vote now. Mousavi's goals for his term would be the removal of the ban on privately-owned television stations (currently, they are all state-owned), as well as the transfer of control over law enforcement to the president. Currently, it resides with the religious "Supreme Leader". He also promotes equality for women, free flow of information, and the removal of the "moral police". However, he is not against Iran's nuclear program.

As soon as the official "results" were announced, it was suggested everywhere that massive fraud had been committed, and people started demonstrating. The government responded by kicking out foreign journalists, cutting communications, shutting down communication networks and the internet, and prohibiting any further protests. Still, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, has ordered the Guardian Council to investigate possible election fraud. Time.com has a list of five reasons why the elections are probably rigged.

Illegal or not, banned or not, the Iranian people are now turning to the web to organise protests and voice their concern over the elections. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr are all used to make sure that they can continue to communicate and to get the news of what's happening inside Iran out to the rest of the world.

It is times like these when you realise just how extremely important and powerful the internet has become, and how important it is that we keep the internet free, open, and without any form of control, be it by a government or by companies. While we here in the west take democracy and freedom of speech for granted, large parts of the world still need to fight for these things, and the internet has become an extremely powerful aid in these fights, especially when mainstream media get thrown out of the country, or are absent altogether.

Today, reportedly, more than a hundred thousand people are protesting in Tehran, the nation's capitol; not for the faint hearted, seeing the harsh treatment of protesters by the police. A tweet earlier this morning read: "It's worth taking the risk. We're going. I won't be able to update until I'm back. Again, thanks for your support and wish us luck."

We sure do.

"We Iranians are friendly people, but our regime is rotten." That's what a young Iranian couple told Dutch journalists, who were later thrown out of the country. In a democracy, people get the government they deserve. But what if you have no democracy?

Update by David Adams:

It's pretty clear that the "mainstream" media isn't covering the ongoing post-election drama in Iran very well [note from Thom: Dutch media, at least, are covering it in great detail and at length], but let's not forget the oldest of the new media: blogging. Iran is a nation full of bloggers (and blog-readers), and though the government has been making it difficult for those inside Iran to read what's being blogged about the issue, there are many bloggers, both inside and outside Iran, that are covering the issue with great depth and insight.

One of the real problems with the unfiltered feed of raw data coming from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc is that as emotionally powerful as anecdotal, first-hand information can be, it can blind the receiver to the larger picture (and may not even be true). Luckliy, long-form new media journalism can provide crucial context, verification, and aggregation for these various sources of raw accounts. Prominent political blogger Andrew Sullivan has probably been providing the most comprehensive coverage of this issue in his blog over at The Atlantic, putting coverage by major news outlets to shame, in many cases by aggregating coverage by Twitterers and lesser-known bloggers, many inside Iran. Bloggers like Sullivan are completely immersing themselves into the issue and trying to get a handle on the live-feed so you don't have to.

As exciting as the latest, hottest use of new technology may be, sources like Twitter are standing on the shoulders of giants, and it's generally a combination of communication media, both new and established, that combine to provide a full understanding of an emerging event. In fact, the participation of the older "new" technologies (television, radio, the printed newspaper) would be welcome and worthwhile, if they were willing to embrace the sources upstream from them the same way that Bloggers have been willing to mine the feed from Twitter and YouTube.

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