How the foot soldiers of a social networking website took the place of reporters on the streets of Tehran
These last few days, something extraordinary happened in Iran. People thronged the streets of Tehran to protest against what they saw as a rigged presidential vote declaring President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected. It was a courageous reaction by people who lived in the shadow of a repressive government. As supporters of the challenger, Mir Hosein Mousavi, swarmed Azadi Square and Tehran became global news, the Iranian regime restricted the movement of foreign media. With journalistic freedom clamped, Iran could have vanished from the world’s audiovisual screens and newspapers. That was when something extraordinary happened; another image began to take shape on the world’s mobile and computer screens —a raw, unedited one—as outsiders began to receive anguished trickles of information from Twitter, a US-based social networking website. Each message was no longer than 140 characters. Without Twitter, we would not know what we now do about Iran. We saw, in stark prose, what humans were put through as they raised their voices. We witnessed confusion and anger, and we read on helplessly. We watched our screens for updates, hoping for better news, but fearing the worst. But at least we now know. We now know that at night, Tehran’s residents shout out in hope from rooftops. We know that segments of Iranian law enforcement do not attack crowds. We know how paramilitary forces mistreat demonstrators. We know all this because Iranians have found a new way to mobilise, advise, warn and question state authority. Here’s the story, told in Iran’s own Tweets:
On the evening of June 11, the first signs of trouble emerged. A tweet, as a Twitter post is called, by Cairoblog suggested that all was not right with the election. Others followed. A distinct feeling that Ahmadinejad would lose arose. Twitter, which helps news and opinion go viral, was soon blocked.
Parastoo: Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, both, have claimed victory.
Parastoo: Ahmadinejad coup d’état may be in the making. Anti-riot police placed in key locations.
Parastoo: Organised fraud? Coup? Police has warned people not to go to streets. Who would protest?
Mousavi1388: Networks are cut. Ask everyone in Tehran to go onto their rooftops and shout Allah-o-Akbar in protest.
Mohamadreza: You can hear ‘Death to the dictator!’ almost everywhere in Tehran… Tehran is dark, cold tonight, I can hear screams. Scary.
Tabesh: Basij Militia attacking people with teaser, stone, stick and knife like rabid dogs.
Cairoblog: Twitter rumours: Mousavi arrested, Rafsanjani quits, 50+ protesters dead, Ahmadinejad in third place in actual count…
Parastoo: I hear screams: Iran is now a Palestine. Tehranelection: My uncle tells me that throughout most cities Mahmoud Ahmadinejad people had ballot boxes burned.
As the sun rose over Tehran, students at Tehran University say that the campus had been surrounded by government forces and the dreaded Basij, a reserve army. Across Tehran pro-reform students feared arrest. They soon realised that worse was in store. At Tehran University, one Twitterer perched on a roof described the events.
Change_for_Iran: 6:47 am, police is speaking with students inside dormitory buildings of University of Tehran with speaker.
Change_for_Iran: All cellphones now read – Emergency only – No Service!
Change_for_Iran: Black riot guards with black vans, it’s my first time seeing these people, no badges! Probably Intel ministry.
Change_for_Iran: There were more troops inside the vans and now starting to create a line in front of the only entrance of the building.
Change_for_Iran: Tear gas. Eyes are burning, hard to keep them open.
Change_for_Iran: Security forces are gathering a large force near university. Students & people fighting back. I will join them.
Change_for_Iran: Tired & beaten. We couldn’t break through their wall, they were too many, we were no match for an army of special forces.
Parastoo: Mousavi supporters’ demonstration: Monday, 4pm to 6pm, Enqelab Sq to Azadi Sq # Mousavi will give a speech.
Change_for_Iran: Basij bastards waving iron chains at us, my back hurts but I’m OK, we will try again around 2~3 am.
StopAhmadi: WTF! They’re bringing tanks on the streets in Tehran.
IranElection09: Very sad, just heard from friends in crowd (Tehran) people are disappearing, being tazed and taken away.
Persiankiwi: I lived thru first revolution.. .it is like it is happening again.
Change_for_Iran: Bastards just attacked us for no reason, I lost count of … [the tear gas shots].
Change_for_Iran: To other sources: this isn’t the police! Police is still outside! We’re under attack by Ansar-Hezbolah.
IranElection09: Hospitals around Tehran surrounded by secret police who refuse to let people with injuries get through, humanity at its worst.
Later that day, word came through that Mousavi had called for a peaceful Green March at 4 pm. As with every such message, people wondered if it was a trap. They knew their every move would be watched. Eventually, they marched to Azadi Square with their hope intact.
IranElection09: 12 noon in Tehran, tension and anxiety in 4 hours, what will happen? Will we change Iran, change the world? Be silenced?
Mirriamm: Special forces marking building with paint balls, we don’t know what their intentions are, we’ve asked people …
Persiankiwi: People saying that army is split, talking of coup. Unconfirmed. Need army on our side.
Persiankiwi: Ahmadinejd cancels trip to Russia planned for today. Confirmed.
Persiankiwi: Call in from Enghelab Sq. Baseej outnumbered, just watching people march.
Persiankiwi: Tehran streets are a sea of Green, many many hundreds of thousands.
Persiankiwi: Mousavi says election not accurate. He demands new election now.
Persiankiwi: Mousavi said, ‘These masses were not brought by bus or by threat. They were not brought for potatoes. They came themselves.’
At Azadi Square, the Basij, who had so far stood by watchfully, began shooting unprovoked into the crowd. This stirred passions up even more. In the following days, it would lead to attacks against Basij forces, with at least one of their numbers killed The death was mourned by the government, which provoked a strong online response for its blatant refusal to acknowledge Basij atrocities.
Persiankiwi: Confirmed—there is shooting in Azadi Sq. Protesters wounded and shot, no numbers yet, still hearing gunfire.
Khorshid: AP photographer saw one person shot dead & several others who appear seriously wounded in Tehran’s Azadi Square.
RT @iranbaan: Intelligence calling homes and play recording saying ‘you participated in today’s march, don’t repeat.’
The Basij, it soon turned out, weren’t just ‘Basiji’ as Iranians knew them. A new theory began to develop: the people attacking protesters were not from Iran, but perhaps extremists from other countries. New rumours floated: that the army and police didn’t have the heart to aim at protesters.
Persiankiwi: Motorbikes all over Tehran. They break windows, some have pepper gas…
Persiankiwi: Rumours that some of the motorbikes are Arabic speaking people—cannot confirm if Hezbollah from Lebanon.
IranElection09: Breaking (Sc: Der Spiegel): 5,000 of Hassan Nasrallah’s militia against ppl of Iran. Iranians wont kill Iranians, so bring Lebanese.
Hope and misinformation combined to feed a frenzy of rumour. Soon, the army’s role came into view. Which side would they take? No one knew, and everyone knew. This highlighted one of Twitter’s greatest weaknesses: false hope could spread like wildfire on this platform. Some expected the army to take over, and heard army generals were being arrested for not following orders. All the while, the Basij strengthened their hold on Tehran University and hospitals where the injured were sent.
Persiankiwi: Rumour spreading Tehran. Army generals met in secret…
Persiankiwi: It’s not a civil war when one side has the guns on their side, it’s a blood bath.
Persiankiwi: Unconfirmed rumours. Army generals arrested . Rumours of coupdetat by army.
TwitPersia: Basij even go to hospitals to get the wounded so people try to take wounded to doctors’ houses…
Cairoblog: Unconfirmed: military refused orders to shoot protesters, only baseej and Etellaat following orders.
Arasmus: Grand Ayatollah Montazeri 2 police/army 2, ‘Be aware that receiving orders will not excuse them before God.’
IranElection09: Will this be the Berlin Wall coming down or just another Tianenmen Sq?
Arasmus: Tehran University: on ‘second night of protest’ police shot students from 3–5 am. Threw a couple of students out of high windows.
Change_for_Iran: And the rumor about Hezbolah & Hamas helping Basij, until today I never believed it, but I saw [the Lebanese and Palestinian groups] today with my own eyes.
Arasmus: Ahmadi Moghadam, head of Iran’s Police, has been fired. Remember distinction between Police and Basij.
Persiankiwi: Today in Tehran & all over Iran, the Sea of Green will be the biggest March in 30 years of Iranian history.
StopAhmadi: I’d say Iranian people will go with Gandhi-like protests, we genuinely believe peaceful protests to be most powerful.
Jadi: It is ‘Allaho Akbar’/‘Down with Dictator’ time. You don’t need a clock to tell it, a window to a street and an ear will do.
Arasmus: Basij are following people home from protests. Stay in groups and watch out for followers you don’t know.
Arasmus: In my mind I imagine I hear a teaspoon in a green glass teacup. A peaceful breeze. The smell of roses. The elegant mosque.
Arasmus: A report of division emerging within both Iranian Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard, appropriate response to crowds.
With news of the protests reaching far and wide, the world watching in horror as events seemed to spiral out of control, and the revolutionary fervour reaching another sort of crescendo, there were more casualties on the streets of Tehran. One of them was Neda Soltani, a young woman who was shot in the chest as she protested beside her music teacher. She collapsed and died within minutes as her despairing teacher and a doctor attempted to revive her. The sordid sequence of events that led to her shocking death was captured on video by an amateur videographer. In a matter of hours, she became another rallying point for Iran’s rebellious youth, and her death came to signify just about everything that was wrong with the regime. Within a day, she was a martyr, a name that would be remembered.
StopAhmadi: Two reports coming from Tehran about helicopters pouring boiling water on protesters.
StopAhmadi: My heart is pounding fast as I’m hearing about dead people lying on streets in Tehran.
StopAhmadi: Will chemical warfare be next by the government to kill people? Seems they’re doing anything to stop people.
Parastoo: Feels like somebody’s foot is on my neck, preventing me from breathing. I can do almost nothing online. Suppression. Want to cry.
TwitPersia: Tonight call me Neda! Call us all Neda! Neda was one of the people killed today in the most brutal way by the Basijis.
TwitPersia: [Ayatollah] Khamenei, Neda’s blood is on your hands!
NOTE: This sample of Tweets during the turmoil is not statistically representative of overall Iranian opinion