'Twitter war' - kilobyte stronger than the megaton

An image of a smashed computer owned by a Teherani student may well capture essence of struggle in Iran.

smashed computer Iran 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
smashed computer Iran 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
An image smuggled out of Teheran via the Internet in recent days may well have captured the essence of the struggle which has pitted followers of the reformist camp in Iran against the state authorities. The image is of a computer owned by a University of Teheran student, which had been smashed to pieces by Iranian police officers during the recent unrest. Shards of glass mark where the computer screen had been. "We [would] like to show [what] the police did to our dorms and computers [in the] last [few] days," a message on Twitter, the short-message social networking Web site, said, directing readers to the picture. Yet however many computer screens are destroyed by the truncheons of Iranian security agents, and despite attempts by the regime to block access to sites like Twitter and Facebook, such sweeping measures of repression have failed to plug the enormous leak of information coming out of the Islamic Republic. "Telephone report from my wife - They are open[ing] firing on the crowd. The police are refusing entry into the hospitals unless it is the Basij [pro-regime militia]," another message read, this time posted on the Teheran Bureau Web site. According to the anonymous author, wounded protesters were told by militia members, "You deserve to die." This was one of the last posts to appear on the Teheran Bureau Web site. Updates from Twitter, however, show no signs of abating. "We students do not chant death to America, we want the American constitution," another Twitter message from Iran declared to the world. It is Twitter which has most notably come to play an indispensable role in pumping out this type of information, forming a virtual pipeline connecting Iranian dissidents to one another and to the outside world. "Twitter is most suited to a psychological information war, and right now in Iran there is a war over information," Dr. Yaniv Levyatan, an expert on information warfare at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies of the University of Haifa, told The Jerusalem Post. "This is the first Twitter war." "On the one hand, you've got Ahmadinejad's regime striving to manipulate and hide information, and to create an information monopoly. But unfortunately for them, this can no longer be done because of the democracy of the new media," Levyatan added. "We are seeing the regime do everything it can to censor information, but its efforts aren't working because of the phenomenal rate at which updates are appearing," he said. "This is history." Levyatan described a lightening-paced game of cat and mouse being played by the Iranian regime and its opponents on the Internet. In this game, proxy servers - alternative Internet servers located abroad - are playing a decisive role in helping the protesters sidestep Iranian state Internet filters. "The main content of messages on Twitter is made up of IP addresses of proxy servers located in the West," Levyatan explained. Once an Iranian protester gets hold of a proxy server, he can use his cell phone to transmit videos and text to the outside world. "This is also how they coordinate themselves on the streets and pass down instructions," Levyatan said. "Yesterday, instructions were transmitted on Twitter on how to act during demonstrations. Activists were told not to get violent with the basij, and to demonstrate peacefully. In the cyber world, supporters of the reform camp outside of Iran are being asked to hack Web sites affiliated with the regime," he added. The Iranian government has, however, also attempted to fight this new war. Iranian agents have set up false Twitter accounts from which they transmit disinformation to confuse the reformists. False times and locations of fictitious protests are routinely sent out. "Ahmadinejad's people are disguised as dissidents on Twitter. They will falsely tell demonstrators that a protest has been canceled," Levyatan said. Iranian intelligence agents identify Web users in Iran by homing in on the local time settings of their computers. If the local time is set to Teheran on one's computer, "Iranian agents will think you're Iranian," Levyatan said. As a result, Iranian protesters "have asked everyone to change their local time settings to Teheran," to confound such efforts, he said. "The situation in Iran has proven that today, the kilobyte is more powerful than the megaton. The modem is more significant than a bullet. The modem connects us all to the global village, while the bullet strikes a single person," Levyatan said. Still, the Twitter revolution has its drawbacks. The sheer quantity of information being transmitted means that quality information can be lost among less useful data. "This is one of the problems, a flooding of information," Levyatan added.