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Human Potential in the Age of Exponential Tech

#IranElections & Acts of Corporate Good

It is evident that the role of social media and digital communications play a critical role in sharing information during environmental disasters or times of political unrest. These tools help spread information, share news and level the playing field in a way that (at least for now) traditional governments can’t seem to stop, and not for lack of trying.

Using social media sites to organize and mobilize groups of people is nothing new. What I am finding particularly intriguing as I watch the Iranian Election crisis unfold, is how some of these social networks are making decisions as corporate entities that are evolving their roles from neutral platforms to powerful players within a new digital narrative. It’s no longer about USERS leveraging a site’s features, but organizational decisions which are adding a new variable to social media’s role in impacting global change.

For the first time, tech companies like Twitter, Facebook & Google are taking direct action in response to an unfolding crisis and are having a big impact. I’m trying to puzzle out the corporate agendas behind these acts as well as thinking of the implications that these decisions will have on driving the development of governmental IT policies and the creation of emerging digital rights legislation.

1) Twitter Reschedules Maintenance after US Government Appeal

The US State Department asked Twitter to reschedule its maintenance in order to keep the service available to Iranians so they could continue to share up to the second reports of the unfolding situation. A CNN blog post reported that US Government officials are pushing to ensure that they (and the rest of the world) continue to receive as much information as possible from social networking and content sharing sites. With this request coming from the US Government, it is clear that social media channels are being monitored by the Obama administration which has no diplomatic relationship with Iran. The content they are receiving through Twitter, Facebook and Youtube is an invaluable source of information.

Twitter made the corporate decision to change their maintenance date to provide the Iranian people the opportunity to share information at a critical juncture.

On to Facebook & Google

2) Facebook releases Persian Translation

On June 18, Mashable reported that Facebook released an early version of the platform in Persian in direct response to the Iran Elections Crisis:

The Persian translation is already live on Facebook, but the company warns that it’s a test version. In other words, the company and its 400+ volunteer translators have not completed all the steps to assure that all translations are correct, so the text or language may be awkward in places. Here’s what Facebook said in a draft release that should appear later tonight:

“Since the Iranian election last week, people around the world have increasingly been sharing news and information on Facebook about the results and its aftermath. Much of the content created and shared on Facebook related to these events has been in Persian – the native language of Iran – but the users have had to navigate the site in English or other languages.

Today we’re making the entire site available in a test version of Persian, so Persian speakers inside of Iran and around the world can begin using it in their native language.

Persian was already in translation before worldwide attention turned to the Iranian elections, but because of the sudden increase in activity we decided to launch it sooner than planned. This means that the translation isn’t perfect, but we felt it was important to help more people communicate rather than wait.”

http://www.payvand.com/news/09/may/facebook-Iran-unblocked.jpg

3) Google Introduces Farsi support for Google Translate

http://schahryar.com/images/contents/projects_google-persian.jpgNot to be outdone by Facebook and Twitter, the search-engine giant announced they would be offering Farsi support for their Google Translate tool. The service was hastily launched meaning users may experience some bugs and delays for now.  According to the Google Blog:

“Today, we added Persian (Farsi) to Google Translate. This means you can now translate any text from Persian into English and from English into Persian — whether it’s a news story, a website, a blog, an email, a tweet or a Facebook message. The service is available free at http://translate.google.com.

We feel that launching Persian is particularly important now, given ongoing events in Iran. Like YouTube and other services, Google Translate is one more tool that Persian speakers can use to communicate directly to the world, and vice versa — increasing everyone’s access to information.

As with all machine translation, it’s not perfect yet. And we’re launching this service quickly, so it may perform slowly at times. We’ll keep a close watch and if it breaks, we’ll restore service as quickly as we can.”

Mulling it over: What about China?

So I am left with more questions than answers. Are the these companies remaining neutral or being subversive? If the Iranian government succeeds in suppressing rioters, will there be consequences for online companies who can be blamed for promoting civil unrest? Or will it be citizens who find their online rights even more curtailed than before?

Governments will have to think about their technology approach, they’ll probably take a cue from the Obama administration’s decision to hire a CTO. I find myself wondering what the Iranian government has learned from this process and how they will adapt to these collaborative technologies in the future.

I really want to believe that Twitter, Facebook and Google’s actions are a step in the right direction for transparency and greater access to information. However, the cynical part of me remains caustic. Was this a move to help a troubled part of the world or a great opportunity for some PR?

With official statements regarding Iran, I wonder why we don’t see as much of a push for digital rights in China? The Chinese government  continues to block sites such as YouTube and heavily censored everything from the Economist to the Huffington Post for the anniversary of Tianemen Square.  Maybe China is just too profitable a market to risk its wrath? In fact, just today, the Chinese Government ordered Google to place even more restrictions on some of the sites it makes available.

What do you think?

In the next part of this mini-series, I will take a look at how social media is redefining activism and how people are showing their support worldwide.

Comments: 4

  • @pattipdx

    June 21, 2009
    reply

    I think we are witnessing a major landmark in history. Propaganda will be harder to manufacture when all citizens can can verify or refute information. My prayers are with the citizens of Iran who have bravely told their stories. I am also glad that companies like Twitter and facebook are sensitive to the needs of citizens in areas of turmoil. Social media is much more than vain musings of the idle, it is a channel for truth and justice for the oppressed.

  • AK

    June 24, 2009
    reply

    Out of the three social channels you mention, it is Twitter that has been the social medium of choice.

    This is for several reasons.
    1)It is the fastest medium to transmit information
    2)It is the ‘hot’ social medium recently
    3)It is the easiest medium to spam

    I believe the third option is the biggest reason that it has been used on such a large scale, this is not to say the spam has not been effective.

    Twitter’s offline buzz is bigger than its online buzz, it’s a channel to cross channels.

    This can be seen by the event that launched it into orbit, the CNN mention of Ashton Kutcher VS CNN CNN for the first to a million followers.

    The current destabilization push in Iran is making great use of Twitter to impact social perception and opinion, and not in a good way. But it is having a major impact on the minds of the West.

    Social media is maturing.

  • Joel Parkes

    June 25, 2009
    reply

    I am inclined to be a little cynical as well. I see the Iranian administration is now using Obama’s criticism as examples of the West interfering with a sovereign state. I’m sure these latest comments play well with the anti-West crowd in Iran and acts as a distraction to the violence being perpetrated by the state. Us-versus-them is an age-old political strategy and I’m wondering if social media’s facilitation of protest communications can’t be used as just another example of the West meddling in Iran. But I don’t know if these social media companies, with an understandable promotional and commercial self-interest, really had any other choice.

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