Last month, I returned to Guatemala for a few more weeks of Spanish language school. On the way we had a stop over in Guatemala City, and waited in a tiny independent bus terminal for our next bus to arrive. It was a beautifully sunny day and I sipped my generic orange soda on the side walk. A young kid tried to sell me cell phone covers. Two little girls in mickey mouse t-shirts stared at me as their mother ushered them into the terminal. Elsewhere in the city, an attorney by the name of Rodrigo Rosenberg was shot dead in the street as he took his morning exercise, by a gunman allegedly hired by the President of Guatemala.

We know this, because the attorney, recognizing the danger he was in by representing the family of a man and daughter also allegedly murdered by the president, had made a video. Rosenberg sits in front of the camera and begins, just three days before his death, “If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom.”

Meanwhile, as the international media lightly reported on the deaths, Guatemalan bloggers and twitterers were alight. If you wanted to see the video, it was easier to find on YouTube than CNN. If you wanted to find out how the Guatemalans felt (furious, in a word) then it was easier to twitter search the attorney’s name than read the bare bones accounting by AP.

The video:

Then a vocal Guatemalan posted some things on Twitter that the government didn’t like: urging people to remove funds from the bank associated with the scandal. The man was sent to prison. A groundswell of grassroots and more importantly online support helped him get released (including raising his bail and an online petition). Moments after leaving the prison, he twittered again.

That’s an incredibly powerful tool. Who knew that the fad micro-blogging platform known as Twitter, with it’s 140 character per post restrictions would become the platform for citizen journalism around the world.

(This picture is by Faramarz, who has more pics of the Iranian Election Protests on Flickr).

Last night, after the Iranian elections and the protests that followed, all foreign journalists embedded in the country were forbidden to cover the events on the street. If you wanted to find out what was happening in Iran, again the international media had their hands tied. But Twitter became the de facto reporting source. The hash tag (a way of tagging posts for a certain topic) #Iranelection became the most popular tag on Twitter. People from around the world started opening their computers as Proxy IPs, allowing Iranian bloggers (who are otherwise blocked from the site) to bypass the firewall and continue to post live reporting.

In fact, Twitter had a scheduled downtime last night, that they had to reschedule, because they are so important in reporting the events in Iran.

If Twitter went down for a few hours it would have an impact on live reporting. Think about that.

Two months ago, Ashton Kutcher, the actor from That 70s Show, challenged CNN to a race to 1 million followers. He won. More people wanted to know what Ashton had to say than CNN. That’s the power of celebrity. Ashton claimed this was the changing of the guard, from old media to new media. At the time, I scoffed at this assertion, clearly Demi Moore’s husband is more popular than Larry King, especially with the younger generation that is more likely to use Twitter.

But Ashton was right. Not because he won, but because of Guatemala. Because of Iran. Because of the world population that can’t rely on traditional media to tell their stories.

Because last night and this morning, I checked Twitter before I checked CNN.

There is a phrase circulating the web right now: Cyber War. Boing Boing reports that the Iranian government is setting up fake twitter accounts to post fabricated accounts. Iran is searching for proxy IPs and blocking them as they are set up to try to stem the flood of on the street reporting. Fighting against this, people outside of Iran are setting their location as Tehran to prevent Iranian officials from finding and tracing real sources. Folks are setting up more and more proxy IPs. Videos and messages are being spread person to person virally, faster than could ever be stopped.  Right now, there’s a war over information and Twitter is winning.

The reality is, each one of these Iranian bloggers are putting themselves in personal danger. If you want to help, Boing Boing offers these suggestions (full text here):

  1. Do NOT publicise proxy IP’s over twitter, and especially not using the #iranelection hashtag.
  2. Hashtags, the only two legitimate hashtags being used by bloggers in Iran are #iranelection and #gr88, other hashtag ideas run the risk of diluting the conversation.
  3. Keep you bull$hit filter up! Security forces are now setting up twitter accounts to spread disinformation by posing as Iranian protesters.
  4. Help cover the bloggers: change your twitter settings so that your location is TEHRAN and your time zone is GMT +3.30.
  5. Don’t blow their cover! If you discover a genuine source, please don’t publicise their name or location on a website.

Also:

Today, we are all Iranian.