By now, you've likely seen the images of mass protests in Iran following the weekend reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in balloting that supporters of rival moderate candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi say was rigged.
And, since the Iranian government informed Western journalists on Tuesday that they were not allowed to report on protests without prior clearance, you've more than likely read one of the many stories chronicling how social media sites like Flickr, YouTube, eBlogger, Blogspot, Tumblr and especially Twitter are helping the people of Iran get the word out about how the government is reacting to the deadly protests, which have taken at least seven lives so far.
According to The New York Times, there's a steady flow of information on Twitter largely thanks to the efforts of a 27-year-old State Department official named Jared Cohen, whose job is to advise the department on how to use social media to promote U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Cohen, who was hired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, sent an e-mail to the bosses at the micro-blogging service on Monday asking about their announced plans to do maintenance on the global network that was to take place in the middle of the day in Iran, effectively cutting off Iranians from discussing among themselves — and with the rest of the world — what was going on in their country.
Thanks to that e-mail, Twitter decided to hold off on the planned routine maintenance until the middle of the night in Iran, what the Times dubbed a "new-media milestone" that showed a "recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country."
Twitter honored Cohen's request, explaining in a blog post on Monday that it delayed the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because it recognized "the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran." By Tuesday evening the network was back up again and the Times said the episode demonstrates the extent to which the Obama administration considers social networking to be an important tool in promoting democracy, especially in places where mass media are constrained by local government.
Mousavi had used Facebook to keep his supporters up to date on his activities. Since the election, Twitter has become the go-to form of communication for many Iranians because authorities blocked text-messaging on cell phones.
Cohen, a Stanford University graduate with a masters from Oxford, is the youngest member of the State Department's policy planning staff — he was hired at 24 — and he's reportedly been working with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services to use their reach for diplomatic purposes in Iraq and other countries around the world. In May, he organized a meeting between some State Department members, technology executives and Iraq's deputy prime minister to discuss how to rebuild the country's information network and talk up Twitter.
After a visit to Iran where he met and spoke with young people, Cohen released a book in 2007 — his second, titled "Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East."
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