The Iranian revolution of 2009 is being co-ordinated through an American company called Twitter. Their web site, www.twitter.com, allows people to send short messages, each no longer than 140 characters. These messages are shared with everyone in the world, available for anyone to read.
At the moment, a lot of people are interested in whether or not the Iranian elections were rigged, and what to do about it. And a lot of these people agreed, through short messages on Twitter, that someone did cheat and that everyone should gather in Tehran to protest.
This is not the first time that short messages had big consequences. In 2001 many Filipino citizens were angry over the corruption allegations about President Joseph Estrada. When the impeachment trial’s Senators refused to look at crucial evidence, the voters got angry. A simple mobile phone SMS message was sent and forwarded from one citizen to another: “Go 2EDSA. Wear black”. In four days, one million people gathered in the EDSA square. President Joseph Estrada resigned.
Twitter allows even more efficient co-ordination through short messages and police in the Middle East understand this. Egypt’s Alaa Abd El Fattah, an Egyptian programmer, democracy activist and blogger, knew that the police were following his profile on Twitter when they came to arrest him. As one police officer approached, Abd El Fattah sent out a message about the approach but also saying that he had many friends close by and that they would protect him. This was not true, but the police responded as he thought they would: they sent so many police cars for the arrest that they blockaded the first police car. And by that point a large crowd of citizens gathered. He did have friends after all.
Myanmar and China heeded the risks. In 2007 Myanmar’s government shut down all access to the Internet and all mobile phone networks. Photographs and reports gradually leaked out about the regime’s crimes, but the ability of the protesters to co-ordinate their efforts was hampered. Last week, on the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, the Chinese government temporarily switched off access to sites like Twitter.
But herein lies the dictator’s dilemma. “Switching off the Internet is a double-edged sword,” said Bahraini Professor Omar Al-Ubaydli*, an economist specializing in political economy. In today’s world switching off access also means switching off the economy. Countries like Myanmar can tolerate this as their economy is so primitive, but China’s cannot do so indefinitely. And for any government in the Middle East that is pretending to be democratic, switching off access uncovers their pretenses.
Which brings us to the short messages of Twitter. Stop pretending. Step aside. Power to the people.
* Yes, that’s my brother. Isn’t he cool!