1 Year Later, Iran's Opposition Still Relies On Internet

Social media have played an important role for the political opposition in Iran. After last year's disputed presidential election, powerful cell phone videos of the brutal crackdown on demonstrators appeared on the Internet. Cameran Ashraf of AccessNow.org talks to Deborah Amos about how social media brings attention to the events that are censored in Iran.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The Internet has played an important role for the political opposition in Iran. A year ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected president of Iran in a landslide vote. That sparked charges of fraud, massive demonstrations by the opposition -the Green Movement - and powerful cell phone videos, uploaded worldwide, of a brutal crackdown that followed.

Accessnow.org was born in the aftermath of the disputed elections to help Iran's opposition to take their protest online. It's a U.S.-based group of activists who support the Green Movement as it prepares for the one-year anniversary of the elections. Its co-founder, Cameran Ashraf, joins us from Los Angeles, California.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. CAMERAN ASHRAF (AccessNow.org): Hi, nice to be here.

AMOS: How long have you been preparing for the one-year anniversary of the elections?

Mr. ASHRAF: Since last year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: And how have you been preparing?

Mr. ASHRAF: We have been extremely successful in getting people to come help us, in getting people to volunteer, in hiring staff to be there to support these people. They understand the importance of this. They understand that we can't be there in the street with people, that we can't stand next to them; we can't hug them when they're getting beaten. But we can be online to talk with them when their friends have been arrested. We can be there online to tell them how to protect themselves. We can give them an element of feeling safe. If they can't feel safe physically, at least they can feel safe for a few minutes when they're online.

AMOS: Have you noticed, over the last year, that there has been a learning curve? I have read that there is something called cyber Jihad - that Iran's revolutionary guards also have a program to counter what youre doing.

Mr. ASHRAF: Absolutely, they do. In fact, weve seen it with their propaganda that they have put out sometimes. And we can see it spread throughout their own blog network. They're supposed to be independent, but which are - actually just parrot the regime's party line.

AMOS: And is either side winning?

Mr. ASHRAF: The way it works online is, you have periods when the regime has been extremely active, when they have hacked opposition websites, when they have this put out this information; and that would be marked as, you know, a victory at that moment. But then the Green Movement comes back with posters, videos, and just floods the Internet with images of what's really happened - of the truth. So, online I would say overall, the balance of power seems to be with the opposition, with the Green Movement.

AMOS: There are a fair amount of regime supporters in Iran. And I have read that they are using things like crowd-sourcing, putting up pictures of people in protests, and letting anyone who is a regime supporter tell them who is that person.

Mr. ASHRAF: In fact, they use the Western media's photographs, too, of protesters, that were smuggled out or were taken by reporters before the media crackdown occurred. And they would just go through, for instance, CNN or The Guardian, find these pictures, put them up on websites and crowd-source it. But what's been interesting is that the opposition, the Green Movement, has done the exact same thing.

Theyve taken pictures of police forces, of plainclothes police officers, security forces; theyve put them up online and had Green Movement people identify these people - including their home addresses, telephone numbers, and stuff like that. So, were seeing the Internet level the playing field in that regard.

AMOS: Over the past year, the Iranian government has been very effective in shutting down most of the street protests in the country. There seems to be another struggle going on, and that's the one in cyber space. Do you feel like youre on the front lines of another kind of struggle with the Iranian government?

Mr. ASHRAF: The front line is now online, because the regime will arrest people and then go through their contacts on Facebook, go through their contacts in Gmail, and find additional people to arrest. So you have this aspect where those contacts were not online, then online would not be a front line as well.

AMOS: Do you have some respect for how far the regime has come in understanding that the Internet is a way to organize the opposition and their efforts to actually try to shut it down?

Mr. ASHRAF: Absolutely. There's a saying my father would always say: Always believe your opponent is smarter and stronger than you. And that's been the approach, you know, because many of us are Iranians, so that was kind of how we were raised with this attitude, so we have come in with that approach, understanding that they have unlimited resources. So we have always respected their ability to do this stuff, and view them - we assume everything is compromised and we assume they know everything, and that's from where we start.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

Mr. ASHRAF: Oh, thank you so much.

AMOS: Cameran Ashraf is the co-founder of AccessNow.org, and he teaches at California State Polytechnic University.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

By the way, you can follow this program on social media; talk with us on Twitter at MORNING EDITION, or at NPRinskeep.

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