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Twitter answers Obama plea: delays shutdown for Iranians’ sake

The Obama administration today revealed it took the unusual step of asking Twitter to defer a planned maintenance shutdown - which would have temporarily blocked many Iranian protesters’ only communication channel to each other, and the outside world.

Underlining the social network’s role in unrest following the disputed Iranian election result, and Mr Obama’s status as the Web 2.0 president, the US State Department revealed earlier today that it had asked Twitter to postpone a planned maintenance upgrade, which would have taken its systems offline during Iranians’ day time.

The social network moved its planned 90-minute shutdown from 9.45pm Monday US Pacific Daylight Time (Tuesday morning in Iran) to 2pm US PDT (10am today NZ time), causing peak-time disruption for millions of Twittering Americans. (The systems upgrade was successful, adding more capacity - which in turn should lead to fewer Fail Whale sightings.)

With Google, Microsoft and AOL's instant messaging services all turned off by the Iranian government, Twitter has assumed central importance in the struggle to get words and images to the outside world.

In a blog post, Twitter founder Biz Stone said "It's humbling to think that our two-year old company could be playing such a globally meaningful role that State officials find their way toward highlighting our significance.

"It’s important to note that the State Department does not have access to our decision making process. Nevertheless, we can both agree that the open exchange of information is a positive force in the world."

A State Department official told a press briefing in the US that "I know the secretary [secretary of state Hillary Clinton] has a - wants a big push for Diplomacy in using these new social media to develop horizontally communities. And of course Twitter is another one of those social media."

The department now maintains accounts on Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube - all of which are featured on its home page, along with a link to Ms Clinton's DipNote blog.

The official underlined that the US wanted to appear neutral, however.

"We’re trying to avoid any kind of appearance of this being about the US. We don’t want to appear as meddling in this whole process. Again, this is not about us."

Indeed, Twitter has been used by Iranians to feed photos and updates around the world, with many in New Zealand following the real-time tweets of PersianKiwi (who, despite their moniker, has no obvious link to NZ).

PersianKiwi now has 15,000 followers, and was included in a New York Times round-up of dissident tweeters.

Raw data
Is the US government using Twitter to interfere in Iranian politics, for good or ill (NBR's take: it beats exploding cigars).

Earlier today State Department spokesman Ian Kelly sparred with journalists during a press briefing.

Insultingly for Twitter's main rival, Mr Kelly said the US government had not contacted Facebook.

The full transcript:

QUESTION: Can you talk about the State Department’s use of technology and websites like Twitter and Facebook to try and get information and any conversations that you might have had with Twitter?

MR. KELLY: I think – as I was following this – these developments over the weekend, it was – I mean, I – of course, I use email and I use the internet, but I began to recognize the importance of new social media as a vital tool for citizens’ empowerment and as a way for people to get their messages out. And it was very clear to me that these kinds of social media played a very important role in democracy, spreading the word about what was going on.

QUESTION: Yeah. No, I – that’s – I’m wondering about the State Department, in particular, any discussions that you’re having with networking sites about maintaining the technology, about how the State Department as an institution is monitoring these type of sites to gain information about what’s going on.

MR. KELLY: Yeah, we’re monitoring – I mean, we’re monitoring many different media, including some of these sites. And we’ve had, of course, talks with Twitter as well.

QUESTION: What’s the nature of those talks?

MR. KELLY: I don’t want to go into the detail of the nature of those talks right now.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, but by not providing any information on the nature of the talks, it indicates that you have some role in kind of providing messages to Twitter, messages to Iranians.

MR. KELLY: No. No, we’re not --

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. KELLY: I don’t want to suggest that --

QUESTION: No, that’s great. If you could explain a little bit more –

MR. KELLY: -- that we’re somehow interfering in – with Twitter. But we do, of course, consult with them.

QUESTION: Well, what are you consulting with them about, if you’re not consulting with them on how to provide messages?

MR. KELLY: Well, we’re consulting with them. I know the Secretary has a – wants a big push for eDiplomacy in using these new social media to develop horizontally communities. And of course, Twitter is another one of those social media.

QUESTION: Are you saying that – I think the presumption in Elise’s question or the assumption is that you’ve been in touch with them about the situation in Iran. Is that not the case? You’re just – it’s more broad – it’s broader?

MR. KELLY: That’s – yeah, in a broad sense.

QUESTION: So you haven’t been in touch with them on the situation in Iran?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think we’ve been in touch with them on a number of very general issues.

QUESTION: Stay on the Middle East?

MR. KELLY:
Yeah. Uh-huh.
[snip: several questions about the Middle East]

QUESTION: Just to go back to the Twitter issue.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION:
Who did the Secretary [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] speak to, number one? And what drove her to speak to the Twitter people?

MR. KELLY:
The Secretary didn’t speak to Twitter.

QUESTION: It’s not related to Iran.

QUESTION: It’s not related to Iran at all?

MR. KELLY: The Secretary didn’t speak to Twitter.

QUESTION: Oh.

MR. KELLY: I mean, we have – we use a number of social media outlets, and we’re in constant contact with them. And as I said before, we were, of course, monitoring the situation through a number of different media, including social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.

QUESTION: Because Twitter has taken certain actions in this regard. They, for example, delayed doing upgrades to their system so that the Iranians could still continue using Twitter. I mean, are you speaking to Twitter in terms of the role that they can play? Is that one area where you’re being helpful?

MR. KELLY: I think in our talks with them, we have highlighted how helpful they’ve been, yes.

QUESTION: No, but what I’m saying --

QUESTION: No, no, no. Did you ask –

QUESTION: Are we talking about Iran election-specific stuff here? Because earlier, in answer to similar questions, you said no, this is a general discussion that the Secretary wants the Department to become more involved, and that there hadn’t been any discussions with these people specifically related to Iran.

MR. KELLY:
Yeah.

QUESTION:
Which is correct?

MR. KELLY:
What I said before is that this is about the Iranian people. This is about the –giving their voices a chance to be heard. One of the ways that their voices are heard are through new media.

QUESTION:
No, I understand that. But the building – this building has had contacts with Twitter, Facebook, whoever, about – specifically about the situation in Iran since Friday’s election; yes or no?

QUESTION:
But if the --

MR. KELLY:
We have – we’ve highlighted to them the importance of these social media.

QUESTION:
Related to –was it related to them, because this goes back months. The dialogue between the Department and these social networking sites is old.

MR. KELLY:
Sure. Yeah.

QUESTION:
It predates --

MR. KELLY:
Yeah.

QUESTION:
-- Iranian election stuff. Has there been contact since Friday with them?

MR. KELLY:
I believe that we’ve been in contact with them all weekend.

QUESTION:
Okay. But on the idea of Iranian elections, did you not – did the State Department – I’m not saying the Secretary of State – did the State Department ask Twitter to kind of make sure that its networks are up and running, to pay more attention, to skip kind of periodic maintenance, to make sure – and we’re not suggesting that you were trying to influence or that you’re trying to send messages. Did you ask to make sure that the technology is able to do its job and to allow Iranians to communicate to each other and to the outside world?

MR. KELLY:
It’s a long question, and I’m going to take it, okay?

QUESTION:
Okay.

QUESTION:
But I’m sorry, when you just --

MR. KELLY:
No, I just took the question, Sue.

QUESTION:
No, no, I just have one more. Just to go back, when you say, “We’ve been speaking to – ”

MR. KELLY:
Yes.

QUESTION:
Who is “we?” I mean, it is – which department --

MR. KELLY:
It’s --

QUESTION:
-- within the State Department has been speaking to Twitter? And what was the goal?

MR. KELLY:
I have to – I’m not sure exactly who’s been in contact. So I’ll take the question and I’ll move on. Any other questions?

QUESTION:
You just said all weekend? It’s – what?

MR. KELLY:
I believe so. I’ve just taken the question. We’ll get you the details we can get you.

QUESTION:
Because if you’re saying that you’re not wanting --

MR. KELLY:
I’ve taken the question. Next question, please. Go ahead.

[SNIP: Several questions about India, Pakistan and South Korea follow]

QUESTION:
I’m sorry, just to go to Facebook, not Twitter, have you been in discussions with Facebook as well as with --

MR. KELLY:
I’ll take that question, too. I’m not aware that we’re in discussions with Facebook.

QUESTION:
So who would – and I’m not being difficult with you, but who would speak to Twitter or Facebook within the Department? Who would have the lead on this? And how important do you see these social --

MR. KELLY:
Yeah.

QUESTION:
-- networking in terms of encouraging a different outlook within Iran and moderate forces coming forward?

MR. KELLY:
Yeah.

QUESTION:
How important do you see them?

MR. KELLY:
Well, I think as I said before, we see it as an important connector of a virtual community, of NGOs and activists in general.
In terms of who in the Department is in contact with them, we have a Bureau of International Information Programs. They’re responsible for a lot of our own electronic pushing out of information, so I would imagine that people in IIP would be involved in this. But if we can get more details, we’ll get them for you.

QUESTION:
Is there a concern, though, that by encouraging Twitter and Facebook and making it – making “E” or whatever you called it a big issue, that you’re going to be seeing this interfering within the Iranian --

MR. KELLY:
We don’t want to be seen as interfere – I’ve said this before, the President’s said it before. We do not want to be seen as interfering in --

QUESTION:
But if you’re encouraging Twitter and if you’re encouraging Facebook, then --

QUESTION:
Well, I think we need to get an answer to the --

MR. KELLY:
Yeah.

QUESTION:
-- taken question about whether there has, in fact, been contact about this, because I don’t think that we have that answer yet.

MR. KELLY:
No, you don’t, because I’ve taken the question.

[Mr Kelly does not return to Twitter before the close of the briefing]
 

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