The Iranian presidential election on June 12, 2009 gave rise to protests, which were reported by many social networking websites in an effort to rally support and raise global awareness about the situation in Iran. The hashtag #IranElection began trending, and 98% of the links tweeted the week of June 15-19 were about Iran. #IranElection was the first online movement to be coined as a “Twitter Revolution”, and so it is a valuable case study of Twitter’s application to real-life events.
Twitter allows people to share information anonymously and instantaneously. This capability allowed Iranians to remain safe in the face of an authoritarian government which could punish them for their revolutionary opinions and activities. A downside is that Twitter usage was limited to people who were tech-saavy; because of this, the main tools used to spread information and coordinate revolutionary efforts were phone calls and emails.
Twitter is difficult to censor. Unlike Facebook, people can post to Twitter through a variety of methods, such as text messages, apps, and websites other than Twitter. The Iranian government attempted to shut down Twitter to stop the flow of information spreading from Iran to the rest of the world, but to do so effectively they would have to shut down internet access in the entire country (which would severely disrupt the international economy).
Twitter allows information to spread quickly throughout the world. Unfortunately, because of the popularity of the hashtag #IranElection it was difficult for any users to maintain a conversation on Twitter to organize protest activities. Thus the primary use of Twitter during this period of time was to share information about the conditions of Iran with the rest of the world. Based on Twitter traffic trends during the revolution, it is obvious that North America has the greatest influence on Twitter trends, because activity rates are in sync with the North American sleep-wake cycle. So even though there were few Iranian citizens tweeting, U.S. citizens were the main population that spread information about #IranElection. In fact, the U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to delay an upgrade which would limit Twitter service to Iranians using the platform.
In summary, Twitter was not necessary to the riots following the Iranian election in 2009 but it was important to raise global awareness about the authoritarian regime in Iran. International journalists, who were censored by the Iranian government, were unable to spread information as they normally did and so the tweets posted by Iranians and other international activists became a critical news source.