I would like to take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly to Twitter. Like many of my colleagues, I unfairly characterised it as a vacuous expression of our narcissistic age. In fact, it turns out to be the most effective tool for advancing freedom and democracy since the invention of the internet. In Iran, the anti-government protesters have been circumventing President Ahmadinejad’s efforts to stop them organising by communicating via Twitter. Not only that, but they have been using the social networking site to file pictures and news reports, documenting the government’s brutal attempt to suppress the protest. If President Ahmadinejad falls and Mousavi is installed in his place, this will surely come to be known as the Twitter Revolution.
The Pavlovian reaction of all dictators when faced with a democratic challenge to their authority is to clamp down on communications. Television news is censored, opposition papers are shut down, visas for foreign journalists are withdrawn, internet access is blocked. In this way, they hope to isolate their enemies and stop the protest movement from growing. It has the added benefit of enabling them to beat, torture and kill their opponents.
This is exactly the playbook that President Ahmadinejad has been following since it became clear that millions of Iranians do not accept the results of last Friday’s election. Text messaging services have been shut down and mobile phone transmissions and access to hundreds of websites, including Facebook, blocked. Newspapers are confined to reporting his 66 per cent victory at the polls.
Unfortunately for the regime, censoring Twitter has proved more difficult. Because users of the service can tweet from a wide range of platforms — web browsers, mobile phones, etc — it is difficult to shut down. If an Iran-based web server is closed, users simply re-route their messages via another server.