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UPDATED Iran & Twitter 101: Getting The Facts Right --- A Response to Will Heaven

TWITTER IRANUPDATE 8 January: Will Heaven will not give up --- he has made another attempt, informed only by anecdote, distortion, and speculation, to justify his campaign for silence on Twitter about #IranElection.

I will break my own vow of silence (see comments below), regarding any discussion of and thus further publicity for the thoughtless and indefensible in Mr Heaven's "analysis", to say this:

@WillHeaven: You insult those of us who use #Twitter wisely and, hopefully, effectively. You insult @persiankiwi, & you insult the people of #Iran. If you have any decency, stop.

(P.S. Maybe you can be of use writing about #uksnow.)


Josh Shahryar writes:

Waking up every day and being a journalist is a very conflicting job. Sometimes, you read the work of other journalists who’ve written responsibly and with full knowledge of the subject matter and you feel proud of who you are. Other times, people write things that make you want to just sit there and mourn the fact that he or she belongs to the same profession as you.

Last week, in the online edition of Britain's Daily Telegraph, Will Heaven critiqued the people who have been active on Twitter for the cause of Iran --- some now for almost 200 days --- under the headline, “Iran and Twitter: the fatal folly of the online revolutionaries”.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr Heaven has freedom of speech on his side. But every now and then, I take the liberty to use the same right to point out where fellow journalists for filling the internet with assertions that misrepresent the truth and "analysis" that blatantly insults not only our intelligence but also our characters. I think Will Heaven fits that bill quite neatly.

I am simply going to reply to Mr Heaven's paragraphs one by one in order. I have not changed any of his words, and I will address him directly.

HEAVEN: As young men and women took to the streets of Tehran on Sunday to confront the Revolutionary Guard, another very different protest sprang to life all over the world. This one didn't face tear-gas or gunfire. And its participants didn't risk prison, torture or death. It took place on 2009's most trendy website:

Well, now, how about the risk of having your family imprisoned, tortured or killed? Did you know that dozens of social media activists have families in Iran and dozens more have received e-mails from the Iranian government telling them to stop or else their families would face serious harm? Did you know that Fereshteh Ghazi (@iranbaan), another activist who writes about prisoners, has family in Iran? Did you know that Isa Saharkhiz, the father of the most active of the Twitterati, Mehdi Saharkhiz (@onlymehdi), is in prison and being tried in connection with the protests?

I think everyone would agree that even if these people aren’t personally facing imprisonment, torture and death, they might deserve a moment of recognition for persisting in their reporting when their families facing the same peril. If you don't choose to join recognition of them, at least pause and include these facts before you wag your finger at their supposed security.

For Twitter enthusiasts, this has been a bumper year. With a new online tool at their chubby fingertips, they've helped to change the world. Or at least, that's what they think: the so-called Iranian Twitter Revolution recently won a Webby award for being "one of the top 10 internet moments of the decade".”

Chubby fingertips? Nice use of the stereotype that portrays all geeks as being overweight. This here is just a direct and far from original insult. I’m not sure how you manage to call yourself a journalist and use such degrading language to get your fictitious points across.

As for the Iranian "Twitter Revolution", that is a creation of the mainstream media who are ignorant of what is going on inside and outside Iran.

If the protests in Iran are turning into a revolution, social networking websites had very little to do with it. The reason why the site are getting kudos is because they helped people bypass the failure of the mainstream media to cover the events in Iran and get informed about what was really happening on the streets of Tehran as well as shore up outside support for the cause.

Get this straight; it was the failure to provide timely and accurate news regarding the events in Iran that forced the citizens of the world to step up and help educate people about the courage and perseverance of the Iranian people and the brutality and inhumanity of the Iranian government. You can whine all you want, but you, if you are representing a responsible "traditional" media vs. a supposedly tangential and irresponsible social media, have failed. And the fact that you failed does not give you the right to attempt and devalue the work of others.

Let me tell you why I find that deeply troubling. There has been no revolution in Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has held on to power after a rigged election. Meanwhile, protests continue to be violently suppressed by government forces and unregulated militias, with human rights groups saying that at least 400 demonstrators have been killed since June. Dozens of those arrested remain unaccounted for, and many of those set free tell of rape and vicious beatings in Iran's most notorious prisons.

So don't tell me that Twitter and other online networks have improved the situation in Iran. It's deluded to think that "hashtags", "Tweets" and "Twibbons" have threatened the regime for a second. If all the internet could muster in a decade was smug armchair activists and pontificating techies, we may as well all log off in the New Year.

Again, Twitter has not improved the situation in Iran; it has improved the flow of news about that situation to the outside world. It has helped mobilize activists outside Iran, protesting across the world, to pressure the international community into taking action against the Iranian government.

If you had followed the news or understood what you have read, you would have known about the 25 July protests where thousands of people gathered in more than 100 cities around the globe in support of the Iranian people’s struggle for human rights. There have been dozens of protests in dozens of other cities since then; I attended one just a week ago. These protests have served to both inform the public and to pressure governments to deal with Iran’s repression of its citizens more harshly then they might have otherwise would have.

This would not have been possible if social networking websites had not connected people and informed them about what was going on inside Iran since, frankly, I see the mainstream media's primary interest in Iran as the nuclear energy program.

Your ignorance does not change the facts on the ground.

Here's the other thing "social media experts" will forget to tell you: dictatorships across the world now use their own tools to hunt down online protesters. In Iran, for instance, the government controls the internet with a nationalised communications company. Using a state-of-the-art method called "Deep Packet Inspection", data packages sent between protesters are now automatically broken down, checked for keywords, and reconstructed within milliseconds. Every Tweet and Facebook message, in other words, is firmly on the regime's radar.

As a result, the crackdown in Iran has been easier than ever before. Once the Revolutionary Guard intercept a suspect message, they are able to pinpoint the location of a guilty protester using their computer's IP address. Then it's just a question of knocking on doors – and confiscating laptops and PCs for hard evidence.
Sadly, when this happens, those outside Iran cannot always absolve themselves of responsibility. If you're an internet user in Britain who communicates with an Iranian protester online, or encourages them to send anti-regime messages over the internet, you could be putting their life in danger.

Here’s a bit of education in anti-filtering software. There’s a software called Tor –-- similar to Freegate --- that allows people to connect to the internet without fear of Deep Pocket Inspection tools. You can figure out that someone is using Tor with DPI, but you can never find out what they’re sending. Our "chubby-fingered" friends were intelligent and passionate enough to get that into Iranian hands as early as June. And that’s not all. Net activists have already created several new anti-DPI softwares that have already reached Iranians and are being skillfully used by a select few to get information out. With these, the government can’t even figure out if someone is using anti-filtering software or is connected straight up.

If this had not occurred, you would not get all the videos, pictures and information readily available within minutes of protests in Iran.

Just because you do not know about these things does not mean they do not exist or they do not work.

And contrary to what you claim, no one actually has to encourage Iranians to communicate information about their country to the outside world. They do it themselves. They feel a need to help the world understand what is going on in their country and not have to read fear-mongering articles on the mainstream media about how Iran is going to bomb Israel and there would be World War III and such. What the techies have done is help them access the software that allows them to do it without fear of getting arrested.

There's nothing wrong with spreading awareness outside Iran, but it's horribly naive to think that supporting illegal activity in a foreign country has no ethical dimension. It's equally foolish, of course, to kid yourself that you're on the front line.
For the Iranian authorities, the detective work often doesn't have to be remotely hi-tech. As Evgeny Morozov recently noted, it is now possible to calculate a person's sexual orientation by analysing who their Facebook friends are. Sure, it's a quirky news story in Britain, but terrifying for gay people living in countries such as Iran, where homosexuality is outlawed.

Illegal activity? What illegal activity? Iranians are granted the right to take to streets and peacefully protest by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Just because the government is overstepping Iranian law does not mean you have to go out of your way to accommodate their will to hammer home your fallacious arguments. As for your assertion that helping Iranians spread the word about the situation is wrong, well, maybe you should know that freedom of expression is a universal human right. No country’s laws can infringe upon that. None.

I’m not sure you know that Facebook and Twitter are officially banned in Iran right now. People in Iran who are using the two applications have created accounts specifically to disseminate news and information, not for dating. Even if the government finds those accounts, it will not be able to trace them back to their owners because of new software.

Perhaps Barack Obama was one of the first world leaders to realise that social media have their limits. In March, on the feast of Nowruz (the Farsi New Year), he posted an online video in which he addressed the Iranian people and their leaders directly.

It signaled the launch of "YouTube diplomacy", one commentator gushed. But, like the Twitter Revolution, it has achieved very little – Iran remains determined to become a nuclear power, and America is still described by the regime as "the Great Satan".

The jab at YouTube diplomacy is another creation of those in the media who know little about what is going on during protests on the streets in daylight, even with video evidence at hand, but who are more than ready to scare the hell out of everyone by proclaiming that Iran will get the ability to make a nuclear bomb soon. Your own retreat into that nuclear shelter, under cover of the ludicrous and unfounded accusations about the movement inside as well as outside Iran, is only an addition to that evasion.

So what can we do? Well, perhaps that’s a question for 2010, because the internet, combined with “offline” networks, probably can encourage openness in dictatorships. But before we work out how, let’s first drop the self-congratulation.

What can you do? You can actually report after researching the subject you are about to write on. You can find sources inside Iran to get some real news out. And you can stop hurling insults like poisoned candy.

Finally, we don’t need to self-congratulate ourselves. The media does it for us quite neatly. I will point you to just one article about the Twitter Revolution published a few days ago in one of Sweden’s largest tabloid newspapers, Expressen:
Today Mousavi's Facebook page [a page run by activists from outside Iran] is a more secure source of news than Al-Jazeera and the BBC, while micro-blogs and websites like the and [both websites that use direct information from tweets and Facebook] offer sympathizers as well as media consumers, fast, reliable news [about Iran] that traditional newsrooms cannot provide.

That is just one out of hundreds of articles that have been published about the worldwide effort to help get the reality on Iran’s streets to people around the globe through social networking websites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and through microblogs.

I understand your frustration at having to keep up with citizen reporting. But that does not give you the right to so flagrantly distort facts and insult a mass of people that have devoted their own time without any monetary compensation to helping their brothers and sisters in Iran.

Next time, if you’re going to write on this subject, please, inform yourself about the many terms you used and try to show the real picture.

Reader Comments (42)

Well done Josh. When I read that you were writing a response to his blather, I did not bother. I am amazed by what kinds of op-ed pieces on Iran that are being printed in the msm lately. It's as though they have run out of people who actually know something about the subject they are opining on. Or maybe, it's a marketing ploy: nothing gets more comments and attention than the uninformed opinions of blowhards .

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTori

Perhaps he's old and he's not brought up-to-date on new and modern technology, but he's not nasty ; anyhow you were right to reply and open the windows to teach your knowledge on this subject; Bravo.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterange paris

@ange Will Heaven is in fact, very young. I am old. ;-) and I know about Twitter and Tor. Go Figure.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTori

Yes , I have just found his picture in Google and he's 22 !!! so he's very ill- informed and close-minded ! good luck for his job and his journalistic future ! this poor guy has to live in Iran, where all the free media are forbiden to begin understanding that this kind of tool are very important in such countries ! thanks to them all the people in the world find what's happenend in Iran !

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterange paris

Merci, Josh, for your resolute reply. Some techies surely overestimate the influence twitter, Facebook and YouTube have on the progress of the freedom movement in Iran, but at present their high informational capacities and their capability to synchronize concerted actions cannot be valued even approximatively. I should also mention your reference to Chinese and Venezuelan activists, joining and supporting the movement:
Obviously it is Will Heaven himself, who abuses of writing in safe conditions to spread obvious untruth and to denounce all activists, spending much of their time to pass on all the incidents and news, blocked by a totalitarian regime.
Their efforts to overcome these barriers remind me somewhat of a biblical theme: Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down...

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

VOA has picked up the story of Chinese Cyber-activists, citing famous dissident Ai Weiwei, who was closely following the Ashura events:
xiexie :-)

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

Josh, I'm so glad to read your answer to this guy Heaven. The brave people of Iran are doing such a great job on Twitter informing us of what is really going on inside their country. May they succeed in their fight for freedom. They deserve it so much!!!

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonique

I have debated the contents of this post over at Daily Nite Owl. I am not going to enter into an argument with its author two - or, for that matter, three - places. Please see here:

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWill Heaven

I do feel, by the way, the Josh has TOTALLY missed the point of my argument.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWill Heaven

Will, I did not read your response over at nite owl yet, but I do not understand how he totally missed your point? Your core argument, as I understood it, was that "Twitter activists" were endangering the lives of Iranians by encouraging them to upload materials. Granted there are some ridiculous and irresponsible tweets out there, but I would call them spammers, not activists. In general, the real twitter activists, were helping people in Iran stay safe by helping them identify secure networks and warning them of the dangers of social networks. The Iranians I know do not want their voices silenced, they want them amplified. So few actual activists in Iran were using twitter: it was a way to share info that was coming in to friends and fmy abroad via the telephone, in emails, and through chats. The one thing I learned from living in Iran, is that you've got to make noise. The regime wants everyone to believe that they are safer if they keep their mouths shut, when nothing could be further from the truth. They kicked out the international media so that the rest of us would not know what was happening in Iran. Obviously, that no longer works...

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTori

Mr Heaven,

With respect, it's not a matter of you debating Josh Shahryar. It's a question of you answering to many thousands of people --- good people, brave people, not the caricature you put forth in your article of armchair cyber-fighters who neither know or care about the fate of those in Iran.

And I'm not talking about you answering to these people in a debate for point-scoring. I mean answering to those activists in Iran who risked lives and livelihoods to use Twitter to get the message out when almost all media, including the paper which allowed you to caricature those activists, were blinded to the post-12 June developments. I'm talking about answering to @Change_for_Iran, @persiankiwi, @iranbaan, @manic77, @madyar, and many others who deserve nothing but your praise and respect that they have acted. Acted not for a few column inches of faux-chest-puffing that "they know better" but because they wanted life to be better.

I'm talking about you answering to those people outside Iran who, for no financial reward or personal glory, have used Twitter to keep that message alive and indeed to get it back into Iran. Getting it back into Iran not by endangering activists --- this ill-informed, straw-man of an argument you use to cover a lack of engagement with or understanding of the Iran conflict --- but by working with them. Colleagues on this website and on others who have been at the forefront of keeping Iran alive have spent many hours talking about minimising the risk of our activities. Before you write another word to slander them, I suggest you pause and chat with @austinheap about the effort taken not to endanger but to protect, not to distort but to inform, not to walk away but to stay involved.

And with that, I will say no more to you. Had I thought that, at any point since 12 June, you had made that decision that those people inside and outside Iran made --- that before declaring, I will learn; that before preaching, I will listen; that before condemning, I will understand; that before standing on high, I will sit at the feet of those who stand before me as selfless, thoughtful, dedicated, passionate not for their welfare but for that of others --- I would continue this discussion.

But I believe the only decision you made was that you would claim your 15 seconds of supremacy by deriding those whom you do not know and will never know. Any further response to that vain, destructive decision takes away from the attention that should be given to those --- including those who will continue to use Twitter in this cause --- who matter.


January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

Scott - I'm unhappy with the way that this article is being posted in a number of different places, meaning I have to try defend myself in all of them. I have debated Josh today on Daily Nite Owl and will post again on this subject tomorrow on my own blog.

I will bear in mind your comments - and thank you for them. If you do write about me again, however, I would be grateful for a tweet in my direction (@willheaven).

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWill Heaven

(I am happy to corss post from niteowl)

The sheer ignorance of this grandstanding, obnoxious and self-satisfied polemic is eyewatering. You are simply an ambitious young man trying to make your name off the back of people who’s ambitions are so base that they are incomprehensible to your pampered conception of reality. Your childish foray into what promises to be a burgeoning area of research- the role of social media in Iran- is an insult to journalism. Within this scholarship/commentary, there will be some genuinely thought provoking (possibly even provocative) critiques of the limits of social media to affect change in Iran. Clearly, you have shown yourself incapable of contributing to them. I truly hope that when you grow up, you look back on this piece as nothing more than a learning experience.

I am truly amazed- I have devoted years of my academic and professional career to reading opinions on Iran, many of them deeply misguided. I can think of few, if any, that have irked me more than this.

Perhaps more worrying, I have never ever seen Prof Lucas, a man who’s judgement is respected in the highest academic and public areanas, so angered. That in itself should make you reflect deeply on what you have written. But I assume your arrogance will prevent any self-reflection.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisE


Many thanks for this convenient reply!
Media guru Clay Shirky contradicts again Evgeny Morozov's critique, also by advancing Juergen Habermas' basic hypothesis of 1962:

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

I really have nothing else to add after Scott's earlier piece on this issue and his comment.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNightOwl

On the subject of new media and the Irnian opposition, this is an interesting interview with Mehdi Saharkhiz (7 Jan) on how he gathers his video material, who his sources are, how he organises himself:

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

@NightOwl. That's convenient. And a great effort from Scott Lucas to avoid the debate simply by trying to discredit me. Let me be really clear: Your work is putting Iranian lives in danger for your own self-congratulation. If that insults you, then so be it.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWill Heaven

Mr Heaven,

I debate when facts and analysis --- not distortion and uninformed assertion --- deserve acknowledgement and engagement. As for any discrediting of you, I think you're succeeding well enough without my assistance.

Enough Iranians have spoken about the value of Josh Shahryar's work to put your unsupported claim into context --- your further promotion of that claim is self-serving rather than helpful to anyone in that country.


January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

Wow Will. No wonder people are attacking you all over the internet. Your idea is ridiculous and impervious to logic and knowledge. What puts people in danger in Iran: silence. PERIOD. Josh does not put anyone in danger.

Some of us, believe it or not, actually know people who have risked their lives to get the word out. How does listening and spreading the news put them in danger?

You tell me.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTori

Can you imagine? You're risking your life to get a video onto YouTube and tweet and FB the URL so the world can find out what you just witnessed, only to be told by the free world, "Hey thanks but no thanks, your duly authorized Supreme Leader forbade the behavior in this vid, so we're going to refuse to share this info, and try to discourage others from sharing it. Go home and shut up and maybe if you're lucky the Coalition Forces will liberate you someday."

For somebody who sees hidden racism in other people's work, Mr. Heaven could do with a little introspection into his own. The proud Iranian people had an advanced civilization while the British were still smearing themselves with magic mud. How dare he suggest that Iranians would not be rising up if Western tweeters hadn't encouraged them? As if to say Iranians are simply not meant for this crazy modern idea of freedom, when King Cyrus created the first known code of Human Rights! Freedom is the birthright of the Iranian people and they don't need anybody to tell them that.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRev Magdalen

When eveything is obvious for everyone in the western countries, when eveyone agrees that thanks to Twitter , Tor or other tools of communication, each iranian has been as a professional journalist , being able to send what he has been witnessed, happening in the streets of Iran, you could have your own ideas about this issue but you are too, too and too little to be able to change the believes and certainties of all the other people( professionals or not ) ! and you have made a bad start in the beginning of your career . Perhaps you are too young yet and need more experiences ! You have to be honest with yourself and at each moment of your life, choose what is fair !

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterange paris

rev m. seems to have hit the nail on the head. it's deeply patronising of heaven to assume that those disseminating information from inside iran are somehow pushed to do so by the encouragement of outside twitterers, rather than assessing the balance between personal risks and potential political gains for themselves. iranians inside iran are, after all, the ones best placed to judge those factors for themselves.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermukharbish

Exactly. The whole point of Twitter was that since it could be used on so many different websites, as an attachable app on even a handphone, it was difficult for the government to block.

Twitter has helped defeat the information blackout and get out the truth of what is happening in Iran, unfortunately since most foreign journalists/television crews have been more or less chased out.

And well, there IS a lull for now because Ashura is over. Naturally the opposition changed its tactics to hijacking government-sanctioned rallies- which has been proven to be a smart and effective strategy- and things will flare up again as the anniversary of the founding of the regime and other events come up.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

The twitter discussion is going on and has reached Germany (or rather Harvard), as the Perlentaucher (online cultural magazine) reports today:
Reasonable reply to both Morzov and Clay Shirky by Patrick Meier:

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

I posted this on Mr. Heaven's site. I think this article is significantly better than his attacks on #iranelection yesterday, but he still doesn't get it. On the plus side, Will obviously feels like Twitter makes enough of an impact that he has written nearly a dozen responses and TWO WHOLE ARTICLES on this subject:

Let's make ABSOLUTELY NO MISTAKE, any Iranian using any website (blog, Twitter, ect.) to criticize their own government is doing a very dangerous thing. I can tell you first hand what it felt like to read what may have been Persiankiwi's dying words in real time after spending days and weeks reading every thought he shared. This is not a game. And that's the point: If free thinking Iranians were able to be free speaking Iranians, then there wouldn't be unrest in Iran today. These kinds of incidents are not new (in 1999 there were violent clashes between student and government forces, and in 1989 as well), and the danger predates Twitter.

Which is one reason why, initially, Iranian dissidents within the country turned to Twitter in the first place. It was the easiest way to communicate and organize with people inside and outside of Iran. It was one of the few websites that slipped through government censors. But, as you allude to, Twitter became as dangerous as other forms of protest.

Which is how MANY people on #iranelection got started. The Iranians who were already using Twitter ASKED US to change our location to Iran (by the way, I have no delusion that Iran can't figure out where I actually live, but it makes it harder for them, or at least it did in the early days after the election). Then we were asked to ReTweet the information that they post, in attempts to hide the original source.

But the role of Twitter has changed significantly. Iranians inside the country use are using a very sophisticated system of "fluid leadership," networks of small communities that communicate directly. During times of crisis (major events/protests) the pace of news out of Iran is noticeably slower than it was during the summer. According to Austin Heap, the government is now using more complicated and varied approaches to filtering SMS and the Internet, switching between filtering (disallowing websites), white-filtering (only allowing certain websites), and actually turning communication systems off entirely. During crisis modes, however, Twitter has become an aggregator of first hand account (the few people in Iran who are on Twitter), second hand accounts (people in Iran and people in contact with Iranians who report what is happening on the front lines), and the volume of information available on opposition websites, blogs, and other news media. As events die down, people return to their homes, update blogs, and post videos and pictures on Youtube and Twitter. During non-crisis modes (between protests), Twitter has become a place to share and analyze news in Iran. As Will Heaven points out, many also use it as a place to rail against the Iranian government.

The track record of Twitter/Live-Blogs is IMPRESSIVE. Much of the information that originates on Twitter routinely finds itself confirmed by traditional media sources a few hours/days/weeks later. Don't get me wrong, Twitter is full of misinformation, but if you know who to follow you can filter it by relying on people who are reliable.

I have two articles about this issue. The first is about the issue of outsiders endangering the Iranians, and the second one (which is much older) is about the reliability and responsibility of Twitter and new media as information providers. Also, my extensive criticism of Josh Shahryar's post "If You Cannot Help Iranians; Please Don't Hurt Them ( addresses this issue, and I'm currently writing a synthesis of all of these concerns on my blog (hopefully up by the end of the day).

Bottom line: Twitter helps, it is ONE tool for gathering and disseminating information and ideas, and it is being read by people throughout the world. Joining in on #iranelection helps Iranians, and if traditional media sources don't get that then they will quickly risk becoming obsolete.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames the Hype

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