[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/06/16/art.twitter0616.gi.jpg caption="U.S. officials say social networking sites are providing crucial information from inside Iran."]WASHINGTON (CNN) - U.S. officials say the Internet, and specifically social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, are providing the United States with critical information in the face of Iranian authorities banning western journalists from covering political rallies.
"There are lots of people here watching" at bureaus and offices across the State Department, one senior official said. "There are some interesting messages going up."
Because the United States has no relations with Iran and does not have an embassy there, it is relying on media reports and the State Department's Iran Watch Offices in embassies around the world. The largest such offices are in Dubai, Berlin and London, all home to large Iranian expatriate communities.
While officials would not say whether they were communicating with Iranians directly, one senior official noted that the United States is learning about certain people being picked up for questioning by authorities through posts on Twitter.
"It is a very good example of where technology is helping," the official said.
Senior officials say the State Department is working with Twitter and other social networking sites to ensure Iranians are able to continue to communicate to each other and the outside world.
CNN is also extensively monitoring social networks as an integral part of its reporting on the situation in Iran.
The United States is staying hands-off of the election drama playing out in Iran, and officials say they are not sending messages to Iranians or "quarterbacking" the disputed election process.
But they do want to make sure the technology is able to play its sorely-needed role in the crisis, which is why the State Department is advising social networking sites to make sure their networks stay up and running for Iranians to use them and helping them stay ahead of anyone who would try to shut them down.
For example, senior officials say the State Department asked Twitter to refrain for going down for periodic scheduled maintenance at this critical time to ensure the site continues to operate.
The situation in Iran is a real world example of the State Department's efforts to increase use of technology in diplomacy, including social networking sites, web video and text messages to reach large numbers of people who would otherwise be difficult to reach.