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June 18th, 2009
10:30 AM ET

Social media's role in Iran protests

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Nick Thompson of Wired magazine discusses the use of social networking in the Iranian protests."]

Information today is a precious commodity as the Iranian regime cracks down, severely limiting our ability to report there. Protestors and media inside Iran have turned to Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging to get the word out about what's going on.

Nicholas Thompson, a senior editor at "Wired" magazine, spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Thursday about the social media phenomenon in Iran.

Kiran Chetry: First of all, are we overstating the role of social networking in organizing these rallies in Iran?

Nicholas Thompson: I think we're overstating the role of Twitter. I don’t think we’re necessarily overstating the role of cell phones, Facebook, or social networking in general.

Chetry: So what is Twitter being used for in Iran?

Thompson: Twitter is being used for some internal communications. What it's really being used for is getting the word out to the outside world. The great thing about Twitter is you can have as many followers as you want and anybody can read anything. It's a completely open network.

So it's great if you want to get news to your friends in America, people in the media in America who are watching and playing an important role in this drama. But if you actually want to organize a protest and if you actually want to get people to together at 6 o’clock, Twitter is kind of sort of useful, but it's not being used by everybody in Iran the way that it's sometimes portrayed as here in the United States.

Chetry: You say this notion of a “Twitter revolution” is not quite true?

Thompson: It’s not quite a revolution yet and it's not quite Twitter. Twitter is a great tool, it's very useful, and you know, there are a lot of advantages to it and a lot of reasons why some people are using it…but we shouldn’t get too excited about Twitter itself right now.

Chetry: Let's talk about the ability of the Iranian government, if it chooses to do so, to shut down these sites. How effective is trying to limit Internet communication?

Thompson: It's fairly effective…they can shut down the website They can do that easily. They can control the pipes; they can just say “No more” But a lot of people use Twitter through other services. Or tweets go out and they’re sort of filtered. You can tweet through Facebook. I can put something on Tweet Deck and it'll automatically go to my Facebook friends. Now, that’s using Twitter, but if you shut down, that doesn't do anything to it.

So there are ways around it. But the other thing to remember is there aren't that many people who really know how to use Twitter in Iran right now. There are plenty, but not enough to organize a million people in the streets or hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. Yes, some of them can get around it, but it's a percentage of a small percentage that’s using it in the beginning.

Chetry: The other interesting thing, as you said, finding ways to get around the slowing down or in some cases the total cutoff of the Internet. What are some of the ways that information is still being able to come in and to go out of Iran?

Thompson: Well…cell phones are great. It's very hard to actually cut down the entire cell phone network. And if you do that, the pro-government forces can't communicate either. So you can use other social networking I said, you can go through Tweet Deck. There are about 10 applications that you can use. You can also use…a safe mode in your browser. There’s software called "Tor" and that prevents you from being followed or watched… You can use the Google Chrome browser…the new Firefox 3.5 browser. There are ways to set those up so that nobody can track you and you can be anonymous and you can post what you want.

Filed under: Iran • Technology
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