YouTube frames of “Neda,” a young Iranian woman whose face is engulfed in blood, are a horrific image of what some are calling the Tehran spring. They also show the genie unleashed by citizen journalists.
Identified on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr as Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman shown on cameraphone footage falling, apparently shot, on the edges of a protest at Iran’s disputed elections has drawn a passionate response worldwide.
Dubbed a “murdered angel” on the popular Sina.com Chinese Web site, her name in Persian yields 15,300 results on Persian language sites according to Google.
In Russia, Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Russian newspaper with a circulation of 2.1 million, carried an article about her on Tuesday on page four.
“She is called Neda Agha-Soltan and she studied at the philosophy department of Tehran University,” it says. “Over the last weekend, she has become an icon of the opposition movement — and her photo is on all the placards of Mousavi supporters, many of whom vow revenge.”
The pictures came from an Internet source known to Reuters television. Since Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to report, film or take pictures in Tehran, they increasingly depend on people like the one on whose cameraphone Neda’s death was recorded.
Iran has more Internet connections than any country in the Middle East. According to PRI’s “The World” technology podcast it arrested its first blogger in 2003. So for some commentators, it is a fitting place for citizen journalism through sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to come of age.
Others see a complex revolution under way.
In the early days after the election, the microblogging site Twitter was a prominent venue for the cat-and-mouse game of finding Internet proxies for use by people whose access from Iran was blocked.
People posting the Web addresses to help Iranians evade government filtering reached a peak when celebrities including the British comedian Stephen Fry joined in, only to be reminded that the Iranian authorities had access to Twitter too.
“The moment you tweet something some people say ‘you idiot, you naive fool … they can close you down,'” he said.
But it was thanks to these proxies that people have managed to release pictures to the outside world.
A journalistic problem with images of demonstrations and violence is that besides what can be seen or technologically verified, the context of events or the identities of those involved often cannot be independently proven.
Some sources check what is offered, starting with knowing their contributors, contacting them by email where possible and using whatever metadata the images carry to verify when, and increasingly where, they were taken.
“We have to hold ourselves to the same journalistic standards as the mainstream press,” said Jonathan Tepper, chief operating officer of photo Web site Demotix, which has placed several photos from people on the ground in Iran with mainstream media in recent days.
“Things that are true tend to be self-reinforcing,” he told Reuters, referring to the multiplicity of shots that come in from a given event. The site licenses still images to earn photographers an average of 150 pounds ($245) per image.
Other examples of how important “people power” has become in covering the events via the Internet include the role played by the U.S. State department in “highlighting” to Twitter its significant role, so the group delayed scheduled maintenance.
And in response to popular demand, Google Earth updated its satellite image of Tehran, in principle to allow people to see better what is happening.
But those with longer experience of social networking sites see a more complex dynamic.
Jeff Jarvis, author and professor of interactive journalism at City University of New York’s new Graduate School of Journalism, said in his blog the events show how Twitter, by making its code freely available to people for manipulation into useful tools, was becoming indispensable.
“Twitter is different because it’s live and social — the retweet is the shot heard ’round the world’ and because that API lets it survive any dictator’s game of whack-a-mole,” he wrote.
“But it’s by no means the final word in digital revolutions. I know we will soon see witnesses and participants to events such as these broadcasting them live from their mobile phones. We will see people organizing with Google Maps. We can’t imagine what will come next.”
And cyber security buffs point out that the increasing sophistication of Internet technologies has opened up ways in which sites like Twitter can turn people who may think they are merely watching events into participants.
Around June 16, according to Web sites quoted by computerworld.com, some saw evidence that links highlighted on Twitter were directing people to sabotage other Web sites by demanding high volumes of information at once.
“With the increase of violence in Iran due to the recently held election, it was just a matter of time when we will see some hacktivism,” wrote Bojan Zdrnja at the SANS Internet Storm Center, describing what are known as DDoS or distributed denial of service attacks.
“So far I’ve seen two groups launching DDoS attacks against Iranian Web sites — in both cases we are talking about technically very, very simple attacks.”