Twitter spearheads Iranian elections coverage

Iranian tweeters provide peek into closed society

This past weekend, something strange happened in the U.S. media landscape: Twitter helped shape coverage of the Iranian elections protests.

The protests were sparked by what Iranian reformists and several Middle Eastern reporters and analysts believe to be a widespread fraud at last week's Iranian presidential election that saw controversial incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad allegedly win 63% of the vote. Because the Iranian government has successfully stifled serious dissent within its borders for the past 30 years, the spectacle of mass demonstrations in its capital streets was something tailor-made for America's 24-hour cable news networks

But all throughout Saturday, as the demonstrations engulfed the Iranian capital of Tehran, America's three cable news stations were taking flack for their relative silence. As Huffington Post blogger Nico Pitney documented through searching the transcript database at TVEyes.com, American news networks on June 13 were mentioning Iran with far less frequency than networks overseas. Although CNN led the way among American networks with 91 mentions, it was still dwarfed by Canada's CTV (124 mentions), Britain's Sky News (149 mentions) and BBC News (177 mentions).

This disparity led several frustrated users on Twitter to angrily complain that CNN, which had made its mark covering foreign events such as the first Gulf War and the Tiananmen Square protests, had dropped the ball. Using the Twitter hashtag "#CNNfail," Tweeters mocked the network's lack of coverage, particularly its decision to show a Larry King repeat on Saturday night while Iranians marched through the capital streets and clashed with riot police.

By Sunday morning the "#CNNfail" hashtag had climbed into Twitter's trending topics list and CNN felt compelled to respond. As Pitney noted in an update at Huffington Post on Sunday night, "for the last few hours, CNN has been airing pretty consistent coverage of the Iran unrest, even referencing the Twitter-driven protests of their coverage." By Sunday evening, Pitney showed that CNN had stepped up its game and made more mentions of Iran on Sunday than any of the big international networks.

But Twitter wasn't merely used to pressure the major networks to get on the story - it was also being used to deliver on-the-ground reports from both professional journalists and Iranian protestors themselves. Native Iranian Tweeters such as persiankiwi, StopAhmadi, IranElection09 and Change_for_Iran were providing real-time updates of protests in their areas, as well as linking to pictures and videos of riot police beating demonstrators with batons and breaking up peaceful protests.

Although the Iranian government's main telecommunications provider had shut off text messaging services and had cut off access to most social networking Web sites by Monday morning, Iranian Tweeters were still able to communicate with the outside world using a continuously shifting series of proxy servers that they were posting periodically on Twitter throughout the day. Additionally, the Tweeters were instructing their followers to use pagereboot.com, a site that automatically refreshes Web addresses every second, to launch distributed DoS attacks on key government Web sites. Iranians also used Twitter to organize nighttime rooftop rallies where demonstrators would climb to the roofs of their buildings and chant slogans protesting the alleged fraudulent election.

On the more traditional journalism side of things, ABC News reporters Lara Setrakian and Jim Sciutto provided news reports through Twitter all throughout the weekend, despite the fact that foreign journalists had been instructed to leave by the Iranian government. This morning, Setrakian continued to provide updates on the planned elections protests that have occurred despite being explicitly banned by the government.

"Thousands of people attend Tehran rally, despite government ban," wrote Setrakian at around 9:20 am this morning. "Reuters reporting clashes with Ahmadinejad supporters."

Atlantic Monthly blogger Andrew Sullivan, who spent a large portion of the weekend writing about the developments in Iran, described the tweets as "the raw data of history, as it happens." Whatever you'd like to call it, it seems that Twitter has finally hit the big-time as a respected journalistic medium.

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