Iran’s mullahs may be hoping to capitalize on Facebook, the movie, which opens in theaters here in the U.S. this weekend, a film also known by its official title The Social Network. Certainly, no one could accuse the leadership in Tehran of not having a taste for drama. Not to be outdone by the Hollywood portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Iran’s state-controlled television has launched its own attack on Facebook and Twitter, whom it calls “hidden enemies,” and no less than recruiting tools for Western Intelligence agencies. Nothing better demonstrates the potential power of social media for subverting the control of dictatorships around the world by empowering their populations.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose Golnaz Esfandiari provides some of the best insights from sources within the Iran, Facebook and Twitter have very much gotten under the skin of the country’s leadership. “The aim of Facebook is to identify people for special operations for Western spying agencies,” an official Iranian report said, a video of which can be viewed on the website Mardomak (of interest mainly for Farsi speakers, of course.)
While the accusation that Facebook actively supplies spy agencies with recruits is preposterous, the Iranian thought-police do have some very valid insights into the essential nature of Internet social networks, particularly Twitter. “Twitter gives people the habit of informing others about their activities every second, therefore information that is not accessible on other sites is being extracted from people in order to be given to Western intelligence organizations,” the program states. It must be infuriating for Iran’s cyber police not to be able to control these upstart new media. Interestingly enough, however, Esfandiari reveals that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini is on Twitter himself and seems to be a frequent tweeter.
The question of whether Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube had more impact in terms of boosting Iran’s opposition Green Movement in the contested Iranian election of June 2009, has become a matter of debate among Iranians inside and outside the country. Yet, what matters is that in the eyes of the authorities they are all a major problem, tools in “a psychological and propaganda war.” No doubt about it: the social network websites carry the promise of freedom of expression and information for Iran’s beleaguered political opposition.
Tehran’s fear of the social network sites is a powerful argument for funding the work that is being done to create new technologies, like the program Haystack, which are capable of circumventing Iran’s Internet controls. This is both in the purview and budget of the U.S. State Department, which has been releasing the funding slowly and cautiously. Tightened sanctions on the Iranian regime, as the Obama Administration has called for, ought to go hand in hand with support for its freedom fighters.