During the Iranian election unrest, Twitter has been used as a powerful tool to get news out of the country. (Cartoon: Ian D. Marsden)
When President Barack Obama warned Iran's ayatollahs that the world was watching their brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters, he touched a sacred chord for a whole generation of American activists. Back in 1968, as TV cameras broadcast dramatic images of Mayor Daley's police cracking heads at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, anti-war demonstrators famously chanted, "the whole world is watching."
In the eyes of the mass media, of course, not all protests or electile dysfunctions are equal. After 9/11, our free press largely ignored persuasive evidence that Al Gore had won the presidential elections in Florida, while TV cameras gave scant coverage to demonstrations against George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. But for those in Washington planning regime change in Tehran, the media problem was not how to convince CNN and the BBC to beat the drums for the "Green Revolution."
The problem was far trickier. How would Washington's media mavens help bring a protest to the streets? And how would they guarantee a continuing flow of powerful images and poignant words between the protesters and the watching world?
Their solution took many forms, from TV and radio broadcasting reminiscent of the cold war to the latest in Internet technology, including the widespread use of Twitter and Facebook. Since 2006, the State Department alone spent more than $200 million on the effort. The money went to its in-house Iran bashers and "democracy-promoters," the Voice of America's (VOA) Farsi language broadcasts, Radio Free Europe's round-the-clock Radio Farda and the secretive National Endowment for Democracy, which funded several other groups.
This $200 million came on top of the $400 million that Congress allocated in 2007 for regime change in Iran, some of which went for the CIA's state-supported terrorism inside Iranian borders.
Whether the overthrow of Ahmadinejad succeeds or fails, the Green Revolution will indeed have many fathers, and critics should avoid pointing the finger at only the CIA or its spin-off, the National Endowment for Democracy. Orange, Rose and Green Revolutions in other countries require coordinated US government intervention, aimed at creating what Rutgers journalism professor Jack Bratich has called "genetically modified" grassroots movements.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the widely reported use of Twitter, Facebook, and other of the new media's social networking tools. How did these tools come to play such a pivotal role in Iran's "Green Revolution"? In large part because Washington made a huge push to encourage their use as part of its strategy of democracy promotion, which in Iran became full-scale psychological warfare.
Meet Jared Cohen, the young State Department official who asked Twitter not to close down for maintenance during hours that Iran's protesters might need the service. He is not your everyday computer geek, who just happened to know the nice folks at Twitter.
Author of the widely acclaimed "Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East," Cohen had served as Condoleezza Rice's adviser on youth and technology, especially in the Muslim world. In that role, he worked with Twitter, Facebook, Howcast, Google, MTV, and others in an official campaign to promote online, mobile and digital networking "as a tool for youth empowerment against violence and oppression."
And not just in Iran. Speaking last December on a web chat to publicize the State Department's Alliance of Youth Movements Summit, Cohen talked the talk of the official democracy promoters. "Wherever civil society organizations exist or individuals have causes that promote non-violent youth causes, we want them to have the knowledge and information on how to develop an online component to what they are trying to achieve," he said.
With Cohen as the Alliance's international press contact, the State Department put out an online "field manual" that provided best practices, videos and steps for building these kinds of movements.
Promoting his book in 2007 to The New Yorker, Cohen gave a different impression. The State Department still had him traveling, he said. But now he was plugged into power.
"Basically, I do a safer version of what I used to do," he explained. "Now I'm in a place where I can take what young people are saying to me and work with my colleagues in Operations and in the embassies to do something that actually happens on the ground."
Cohen could not stop talking. "I always say that the largest party in every country - the largest opposition group in every country - is the youth party," he said.
Frankly, I was flabbergasted. Had the spirit of Abbie Hoffman and his Yippies, the Youth International Party, gone from anti-war demonstrations in Chicago to work in the very belly of the beast, all nonviolently, of course, and armed with the newest of new media? No wonder Cohen's boss Condi Rice sounded so ecstatic when she described the Internet as "possibly one of the greatest tools for democratization and individual freedom that we've ever seen."
As Rice well knew, the new media is especially great for meddling in another country, especially when Washington and its allies have so many other psywar tools at their disposal. Take, for example, The Washington Post's recent article "Persian News Network Finds New Life in Contested Iranian Election." The ayatollahs had cracked down on free speech, wrote the Post, and Voice of America was rushing to the rescue.
"What we're seeing is a new level of cyber warfare," said producer Gareth Conway, referring to the Iranian government's blocking of text-messaging services and Internet sites and Iranians' attempts to fight back. "We're trying to give viewers updates on technology, how they can continue to communicate with each other."
"As protests have erupted over the heavily disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, VOA's Persian-language TV network and a similar BBC service have emerged as a critical way for Iranians to share information."
Yes, the whole world is watching, as President Obama suggests. But our supposedly free media show only half of the picture. They give wall-to-wall coverage of the protesters, whose heroism is very real. But the TV cameras and front-page headlines completely ignore how hard Washington worked to stir up the protests, and most of the supposedly progressive blogosphere wears the same political blinders. Old media or new, to a child of the cold war, the self-righteous dupery is déjà vu all over again.