Screenshot via TechCrunch
A lot of people who logged into Twitter on Thursday night found that they were taken someplace else.
Twitter is the social network platform that enabled Iranian protesters to communicate with each other, and the outside world, after Iran's disputed elections in June. The Iranian government tried to jam, spam and otherwise shut it down. The U.S. State Department asked Twitter not to take its network down for routine maintenance, so that protesters could continue to talk.
For a little over an hour on Thursday night, though, about 80 percent of the people who logged into Twitter were greeted by a message in red letters over a green flag:
"THIS SITE HAS BEEN HACKED BY IRANIAN CYBER ARMY ... U.S.A. Think They Controlling And Managing Internet By Their Access, But They Don't, We Control And Manage Internet By Our Power, So Do Not Try To Stimulation Iranian Peoples ..."
They added a smile emoticon and "Take Care."
As soon as the network was back, messages began to bat back and forth, often from Iranians living in the current isolation of protest.
"I'm reminded of days gone by — with a mixture of tears and joy," read one.
Another posted a link to a message to Twitter that said, "This very clearly shows that the dictators ... and their buddies are so mad at you because they see how helpful you are to us. They spend millions of dollars to block our access to the Internet ..."
And there is a lot of speculation. Nik Cubrilovic, writing for the blog TechCrunch, cites sources claiming that the Iranian Cyber Army is in league with the Iranian government, and says its action amounts to a warning shot that Iran can control both the information that comes into the country, and what gets reported to the world. He points out that the intrusion into Twitter came just as Iran announced it will build more uranium enrichment plants, and just days before the deadline the United Nations gave Iran to halt that enrichment, which could lead to a weapon.
But James Lewis, a technology and national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says he suspects the Iranian Cyber Army is a small group with a grand name that just doesn't like the protesters.
He says a lot of people had hoped that social networks and new technologies would reach across national boundaries and knit people together in new ways. And so they do. "But then the bad guys figure that out, too," he says.
What truly made Twitter go silent in Iran was when authorities began to use messages of protest to trace a trail to the protesters — and throw them in jail.
New technology can transform a society. It can also transfer the same old battle between tyrants and free speech into new places.
(Smile emoticon) Have a nice day!