Obama’s Twitter Strategy

A week after the elections in Iran, and in its stunning aftermath, a debate persists in Washington over whether President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo two weeks ago provided needed fuel to the Iranian pro-reform movement. Some point to the Lebanese parliamentary election in which a pro-Western coalition emerged victorious and argue that, as there, Obama’s words gave a boost to those in Iran seeking a better relationship with the United States. But a more accurate reading of events would be that the Cairo speech had less influence on Iran than did a message Obama delivered last August.

On August 23, the Obama campaign sent a text message to its supporters announcing the choice of Joe Biden as Obama’s running mate. This decision to employ text messaging (which oddly, given the extent to which Twitter has driven the Iran coverage, already seems somewhat like old technology) was the pinnacle of the Obama campaign’s famous embrace of new technology.

This campaign model of using technology to disperse information widely and quickly has had a staggering influence within Iran. As news reports have noted, the reform movement’s campaign in Iran, led by the candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, was bolstered by the use of Facebook, YouTube, and blogs. Following what many viewed as widespread fraud in the ballot tallying, reformists used Twitter to galvanize an unprecedented amount of protesters in the streets of Tehran.

How can these recent events guide U.S. policy on democracy promotion—a policy that was front and center in the last administration but is still being formulated within the Obama administration?

President Obama is clearly looking to distance himself from President George W. Bush’s troubled democratization policy—one that focused on military invasion and elections, instead of bottom-up reform. But one example of a policy the administration should implement more widely is the State Department’s recent promotion of the use of Twitter in Iran. The use of Twitter has been so essential to the Iranian reform movement that in an extraordinary move, the State Department asked Twitter to change a scheduled maintenance of its service that would have shut down the program during the fourth day of the Iranian protests. In a posted announcement, Twitter said it had rescheduled its network maintenance to 1:30 a.m. Iranian time—the middle of the day in the United States, primetime for American Tweeting—so as not to disrupt the Iranian users.

The State Department’s Twitter move was a smart step and can serve as a model. Specifically, the administration should be vigilant, both publicly and behind the scenes, about protecting access to new media throughout the world. In his first public comments on the Iranian election, President Obama rightfully said that “free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent … are universal values and need to be respected.” But what the president did not criticize are the new restrictions the Iranian regime has been trying to place on the technological tools that have empowered the protests.

The week before supporters of Mousavi were Tweeting and coming together in the streets, China announced it would require the installation of a Web-blocking program called “Green Dam Youth Escort” on all new computers in the country. While ostensibly meant to block pornography and violent images, many technology experts pointed to its ability to block sites that are politically distasteful to the communist government. Chinese lawyers, academics, and even many in Silicon Valley were up in arms and vocal with their criticism, but Washington stayed silent. The Chinese government ultimately relaxed the requirement, but battles still loom, especially in Iran.

The administration should therefore make clear its dissatisfaction when Internet services are blocked or bloggers arrested, as has been the case in Iran. Taking a firm stand on the protection of new media would help local, grassroots movements flourish without being seen as proxies of the United States.

While promoting a vibrant and free traditional press should be the ultimate goal—new media is clearly no replacement for accurate, accountable reporting—advancing the freedom of new media is a step in this direction, and a step that can yield fast results.