Marked for Death by Twitter

Social-networking sites are being celebrated as conduits for information out of Iran. But with the supreme leader vowing to punish dissidents, these digital footprints could prove deadly.

06.20.09 9:32 AM ET

After a week in which masses of protesters endured brutal police beatings and daring attacks by club-wielding thugs on motorcycles, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered a little clarity. The lugubrious religious authority told throngs of supporters at his Friday Prayer at Tehran University that the June 12 elections were free and fair, and that those who question them from the streets question Iranian democracy itself.

To some extent, the age of the camera phone, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook mean that protesters are now spying on themselves.

Khamenei, of course, sits above Iran’s electoral democracy, as the nation’s ultimate arbiter. Opposition leaders, he said, must stop the demonstrations or bear the blame for “bloodshed and chaos.” If someone were to summarize his lengthy speech on Twitter, it might go like this: Khamenei: "If protesters don’t back down, there will be a crackdown."

Khamenei hasn’t simply endorsed President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s contested victory, he has essentially absolved the reinstated president—in advance—of blame for any violent repression to come. Like the recent protests, this new violence would no doubt result in dramatic video and photos on YouTube, Flickr and Facebook, and alarming “Tweets” and blog postings with links to those images. While Twitter isn’t a major revolutionary tool to organize protests in a place like Iran, the cryptic 140-character Tweets can be a pretty good means of making the outside world aware of events, especially when journalists are prevented from leaving their homes or offices.

But there is also inherent danger in all of this Web 2.0 information-sharing. In a crackdown, the video, photos, and blogs used to rally international support can help Iranian authorities identify protesters for arrest. Sophisticated Web users might know how to reduce this risk by adopting pseudonyms, masking the identity of their computers, and creating proxy servers that make information harder to trace to its source. (Some are even savvy enough to do the obvious: Avoid posting photos and video, or giving names, that clearly identify individuals, especially if the video shows them clashing with authorities.)

But the truth is that many people are not taking such precautions—especially when confronted by more immediate concerns, such as someone bearing down on them with clubs or guns, or a Basiji militia member aiming his motorcycle into a crowd. The cellphones the protesters are using to transmit text, photo, video,  and some Tweets are also easy to pinpoint geographically by the authorities who control the service. CNN reported this morning that some demonstrators were being told to remove the SIM cards in their phones to avoid being tracked.

This should be a concern, because the fact is that most revolutionary moments don’t succeed. And when they fail, authorities usually move to consolidate their power, methodically ferreting out dissenters and punishing them with jail sentences, exile, disappearance, or death. In the old days, authorities relied heavily on informers and spies—and they still do—but to some extent the age of the camera phone, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook mean that protesters are now spying on themselves.

It took awhile for Iranian authorities to fully comprehend the role of the Internet and cellphones in these protests. But in recent days people believed to be members of the Iranian security apparatus have set up apparent decoy Web sites about the demonstrations to gather IP addresses that will allow them to locate the computer of anyone tricked into clicking on them. Others—again believed to be government agents—have begun what appears to be an active campaign to mis- and dis-inform through Twitter postings. (Twitspam actually offers a list of apparent Twit-spy offenders.) 

Moreover, the Internet is largely a trail of past actions by users, and the lively Web debate that preceded this election is a rich trove for anyone hunting opponents of the current regime. “We think of the Internet as a web… but you are going through shared pipes and that all leaves a trace,” explains Dan Sinker, who teaches on entrepreneurial journalism and the mobile web at Columbia College Chicago. The “pipes” in Iran, of course, are controlled almost exclusively by the state, which can tighten the spigot to a trickle, attempt to monitor all that goes through them, or just track down a select few troublemakers.

The Iranian authorities temporarily blocked access to Facebook for several days in late May, perhaps unaware that even the president had a Facebook fan page with nearly 30,000 fans. Now state security forces may decide that the unprecedented and remarkably civil discussions between members of the Iranian diaspora and those in the homeland in the runup to this election are a good place to dust for digital fingerprints, seeking traces of those who have written passionately against the regime. Few people are as anonymous on the Internet as they might think, especially under an authoritarian government.

Ominously, Khamenei injected a divisive note of class conflict into his speech in support of Ahmadinejad, portraying him as the legitimate choice of Iran’s masses. "If the political elite want to ignore and break the law, and take wrong measures which are harmful willy-nilly, they will be held accountable for all the violence and blood and rioting." And certainly the “elite” is more likely to Twitter and blog. But with about 20 million Iranians now having access to the Internet, the opposition’s hope is that the elite and the masses are now one and the same—and that they are too numerous to target in an Internet inquisition.

Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.