A State Department press briefing gives some insight into why the U.S. government requested that Twitter postpone a scheduled downtime during a crucial period in the post-election upheaval in Iran.
"I think, as I was following this, these developments over the weekend...I began to recognize the importance of new social media as a vital tool for citizens' empowerment and as a way for people to get their messages out," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Tuesday, according to a transcript of the department's daily press briefing (which was not held specifically to address the Twitter question). "And it was very clear to me that these kinds of social media played a very important role in democracy, spreading the word about what was going on."
CNN reported Tuesday that the State Department had been behind the decision by Twitter and its hosting provider to reschedule the downtime for an hour when it would be the middle of the night in the Iranian capital of Tehran.
Kelly was then asked to comment on "discussions that (the State Department is) having with networking sites about maintaining the technology, about how the State Department as an institution is monitoring these type of sites to gain information about what's going on."
His response: "We're monitoring many different media, including some of these sites. And we've had, of course, talks with Twitter as well...I don't want to go into the detail of the nature of those talks right now."
Another reporter then pointed out that "by not providing any information on the nature of the talks, it indicates that you have some role in kind of providing messages to Twitter, messages to Iranians."
Kelly denied this. He said he was not sure who exactly within the State Department had been in touch with Twitter and added that "we use a number of social media outlets, and we're in constant contact with them. And as I said before, we were, of course, monitoring the situation through a number of different media, including social media networks like Facebook and Twitter...this is about the Iranian people. This is about giving their voices a chance to be heard. One of the ways that their voices are heard are through new media."
With the Iranian government clamping down on foreign journalists, Kelly has a point: access to Twitter and ilk are crucial sources of information.
Social media tools like Twitter and Facebook have already emerged as sources of raw news in disasters and political crises before--from the Hudson River emergency plane landing to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. But this is the first time they've been highlighted as vital information channels in Iran--both for protesters trying to spread information and for government authorities trying to gather it.