The 30,000 to 40,000 people filling Haft-e Tir Square to protest the Iran election Wednesday seemed just a fraction to those taking to the Internet to do the same. While the human element remains an essential tool of social protest, technology’s power to usurp government censorship continues to evolve.
In 1989, the vanguard of social networking technology came in the form of a fax machine purchased by Chinese students studying at the University of Michigan following the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
Other college campuses quickly followed suit, combating the Chinese government’s disinformation by bombarding that country’s universities, as well as hospitals and businesses, with U.S. press reports and photographs of the massacre.
Twenty years later, the Chinese government seemed prepared to stop the use of technology in commemorating the anniversary. Beijing tightened its grip on the latest information technology by blocking social networking sites including Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Blogspot, Tumblr and LiveJournal.
Facebook remained available, however, and resourceful protesters found workarounds to access the blocked social networks. If any question remains about the viability and value of social networking as an indomitable tool of social protest, one needs only to look to Iran.
Despite the government of Iran’s attempts to limit Internet interaction, as well as the country’s comparatively patchy network, Iranian citizens are still able to access social networks.
The government attempted to block network access, and the protesters fought back in kind, crashing government Web sites. But despite the mutual information jamming, social networks — like the fax machines of 1989 — remain an immediate source of the latest news on the Iranian uprising.
Twitter was the instant front-runner. Posting images, opposition activists shared with the world photographic evidence of bloody protests and notified each other about scheduled protests in Tehran.
“When I'm not connected to Twitter it means that I'm disconnected from the world because the state TV doesn't report many things!" one Iranian Twitter user told the Associated Press.
Outside of the country, ordinary people are connecting via Twitter to go beyond typical shows of support and aid the revolution, setting up proxy IPs and trying to confuse Iranian security services. The popular Twitter search term "#iranelection proxy" operates as a public resource on how to create proxy sites accessible to Iranian dissidents, and tips on preventing them from being infiltrated and jammed by government officials.
Facebook, too, provides information, though not with the simultaneity and easy accessibility of Twitter. The fan page for "Tehran Bureau," an independent news source, posts regular updates and commentary, and allows others to post thoughts and commentary. Hailing itself as the "The Leaders of Iran’s Election Coup," it currently has 22,108 Facebook "fans" and appears to be the major hub on the social networking site for protest information.
Flickr has in the past served as an up-to–the-minute repository for breaking news images taken by amateur photographers. As of this morning however, "Iran" or any related terms have yet to emerge in the most popular search terms of the past few days.
"Regime Change in Iran," a group on Google’s eBlogger set up a public access photo bucket on Flickr titled " Iran Elections 1384," which features several hundred predominately peaceful images of Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi as well as photos of various election posters and television media.
An image search via Flickr’s World Map produces more than 37,000 images one must weed through to find those specifically pertaining to the election.
On the network YouTube, television news and commentary on Iran are available in the “News” category. However, users of the video-sharing network seem to be less politically inclined than other social sites. The most popular videos remain “Speidi's Extremely Uncomfortable with Al Roker” and the like.
Perhaps in an effort to appear relevant, YouTube is highlighting "Democracy Challenge," a user-based project proposed by a coalition of civic groups and the U.S. State Department. Pointing to the more than 900 responses received from 95 countries, the box at the top of YouTube’s home page states, "Given current events in Iran, the videos are all the more thought provoking."
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