Twittering regime change

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on June 26, 2009

David Cohen, a former Bush administration official in the Department of the Interior, posted a status update on Facebook Monday morning Manila time urging Twitter users to set their locations to Tehran and their time zones to GMT +3.30. The reason? “Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location/timezone searches,” Cohen wrote. “The more people at this location, the more of a logjam it creates for forces trying to shut Iranians’ access to the Internet down.”

He concluded the post by encouraging his network to, “Cut & paste & pass it on!” I heeded that call, and posted the information on both Facebook and Twitter. And within minutes, a friend in the US reposted the request for his network to see. Another, who writes for huffingtonpost.com, soon followed.

That process is an extraordinary one. While many observers of what is happening in Iran in the aftermath of a contested presidential election-despite its analog, non-automated character, results were posted two hours after polls closed-are in awe of Iranian Twitter users who are using the Internet to generate support and organize rallies, Mr. Cohen’s post shows that supporters are being rallied far beyond Iran’s borders. Not just that. At least some of these international supporters are actively lending their support.

Say hello to international, Internet-enabled people power.

Iran’s protestors face formidable odds. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has staunchly defended the election results, and unconfirmed estimates suggest that perhaps more than 150 demonstrators have been killed by police and the violent Basij militia for exercising their right to assembly and free speech. News coverage by international media has been sharply curtailed by the government in an attempt to isolate protesters, making Internet access even more important to them.

As Mr. Cohen’s post revealed, the Iranian government is struggling to expand the information blackout to the Internet, effectively shutting down any communication critical of Mr. Khamenei and incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It may succeed. Whether it does or not, Iranian Twitter and other Internet users have friends on online, and they are as outranged at the men and women who are literally putting their lives on the line for freedom.

Because the Iranian protesters have used Twitter and other social networking tools so effectively, authoritarian governments everywhere are watching closely, and their citizens are doing the same. With national elections scheduled next year in a climate that is best described as “uncertain and untrusting” in the Philippines, a little speculation on the role of the Internet seems in order.

In an opinion piece published, coincidentally, on Monday in The Wall Street Journal , long-time Philippine observer and Washington Times opinion page editor Brett M. Decker wrote that Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo “is pursuing the Marcos model” in an effort “to cling to power.” If Mr. Decker is correct, how will the Internet be used to support or undermine Ms. Macapagal-Arroyo’s plan? More to the point, will the international community respond with their support, as it has in the Iranian case?

In fact, the online protests began in the wake of a resolution to convene a constitutional assembly to revise the present constitution passed by the House of Representatives just a little more than two weeks ago. Already, approximately 75,000 users have signed onto “Stop Con-Ass Now!” Set up by Facebook member Noli Benavent, between 1,000 and 2,000 other members sign up daily according to published reports (Since writing this column, it’s grown to 87,000.).

In the Philippines, the total number of Internet users is at least 25 million, according to research firms. Some estimates go as high as 35 million, which would represent approximately 38% of the population, assuming Filipinos now number 92 million. A recent AC Nielsen study puts Internet penetration at an average of 28% nationwide in urban locations, and much higher in Metro Manila and many tier-two cities and broadly urbanized areas such as Cavite. About half of these users are of voting age. Twelve million votes is more than enough to get elected president in a crowded field.

Although Internet users are of various political persuasions, the Iranian example shows that polarizing issues can unite large numbers of voters and activists. In the Philippines, it’s clear that charter change is a polarizing issue. If the House of Representatives tries-as many suspect -to convene the joint session of the House and Senate scheduled July 27 to hear the Ms. Arroyo’s annual State of the Nation Address into a constitutional assembly, it may anger and unite large numbers of voters.

That doesn’t mean they will necessarily take to the streets, at least for now. But voters don’t have to take to the street. They can Tweet for regime change. And the world will be there to support them.

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