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Summary:

Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Barack Obama have all turned to Twitter to speak to their fans. But what does the fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is also using it — while disrupting the service for ordinary Iranians — have to tell us?

Ayatollah Khamenei

Ayatollah KhameneiJust a few days ago, Twitter was getting solid pats on the back for standing up to the U.S. government’s subpoena for Wikileaks data. It’s one of those moments that leaves the company basking in great publicity, just as it did when the U.S. government pointed to it during the Iranian revolution.

However, Iranian bloggers are now up in arms because Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s Supreme Leader, is still using Twitter despite simultaneously leading an ongoing crackdown on some social networking services.

The Guardian quotes Iranian blogger Hamzeh Ghalebi asking why the hypocrisy is being left to stand unanswered: ”If we assume that using a blocked website is illegal, why are some people banned from using it and others allowed? Aren’t we supposed to be equal before the law?”

As it goes, Khamenei’s tweets themselves are fairly mundane stuff. Written in Persian and English, they document a series of pronouncements and activities: he “meets the people of Qom”, he “hailed Iranian people’s unity and participation.” This wouldn’t be too unusual in most cases (in fact, it is not too dissimilar from the way Barack Obama uses Twitter), but in a nation where the state exercises limitations on electronic communication, this sort of thing becomes a tool of control — as if the legal airwaves were reserved purely for Khamenei TV broadcasts.

It’s certainly a contrast to the usual image of Twitter portrayed in the media as either inconsequential fluff or a revolutionary tool.

Only this week, co-founder and chairman Jack Dorsey waxed about the world-changing potential for Twitter on the Charlie Rose Show (see around 12:45 in the video linked here).

CHARLIE ROSE: And so it has political implications?
JACK DORSEY: It could.
CHARLIE ROSE: It did in Iran.  It was about the only way people could communicate.
JACK DORSEY: It was one way.  There were multiple ways.  I think what was really important in Iran was that the first time people were really using these tools to be on the ground and show what was happening.  And that alone created an international conversation.

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Twitter is a platform and that platforms are, essentially, neutral. So while Twitter clearly protects its users where it can, and it’s happy to work to keep things running during times of crisis, it’s the users that determine what Twitter really is.

And that means the platform itself can be manipulated by anyone, whether they’re argumentative trolls, celebrities lining their own pockets or even, from time to time, the odd dictator.

Image used under CC license from sajed.ir

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  1. You are correct. The Iranian government loves Twitter for helping it identify and arrest anti-government protesters. Anonymity does not mean invisible, especially under a dictatorship that controls all media and communications. In situations like these some of your “followers” are likely to show up at your door and arrest you. That’s what happens when anyone can join the conversation. Jack Dorsey and the fawning Western press rarely discuss this double-edged social sword.

  2. hi,good to see it in here! cause i’m Persian and i’m from Iran.this is hard to be online with 512kb Internet that you can only download 1 GB on month!!i have to use VPN to get to this web site!
    and next year,gov want’s to disconnect us from internet and make us use iran’s network as internet!!so we can not have faceboock,youtube,gmail flicker,BBC! and lot’s of foreign web site’s even with VPN

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