A Different Perspective on Social Media and Revolution in Iran

// Coverage of the 2009 post-election crisis first drew Dr. Partovi’s attention to the operation of rumor and mass political action in Iran. Below, in a piece written during that crisis, he argues that interpersonal communication via mobile phones and satellite tv/radio seemed to be the most important tool in organizing people in Iran and getting news out to interested parties outside Iran. Dr. Partovi will be speaking at CGCS about Rumor as Political Communication in Modern Iran on April 10th, 2013.

I, like many others expatriates following the 2009 post-election crisis in Iran, have for better or worse depended on newsblogs, Twitter pages, Youtube clips, Facebook messages, television and radio broadcasts via the internet, and endless links to more or less obscure corners of the information superhighway for the latest news and analysis on the latest events. Of course, some commentators have gone so far as to claim that the internet, and social media in particular, not only chronicled this incipient “revolution” for Iranians and non-Iranians alike but actively participated in it. The banning of many foreign journalists from Iran in the days following the election and the subsequent prominence in Western media reports of amateur correspondents said to be tweeting and texting live and on location only encouraged such talk. Many such stories also blithely engaged in the “globalization” discourse of media technology, bringing the world, and its youth especially, closer to “us” and “our” values. The trials would perhaps inadvertently give credence to such estimations by giving center stage to one of the most prominent bloggers in Iran, Mohammad Ali Abtahi. There was even a short-lived attempt to have him blog from prison, recanting his former views and apologizing for his role in fomenting street violence after the June elections. Many analysts have also speculated, based on the prosecution’s statements, that the yet to be revealed star witness against the “velvet coup” plotters was none other than the “blogfather” of Iran, Canadian-Iranian Hossein Derakhshan (“Hoder” of hoder.com)—himself imprisoned since November 2008 serving a 19½ year sentence.

As the initial excitement of the “Twitter revolution” began to wear off, stories appeared questioning the giddy assessments of the internet-based media as hero of the Iranian masses. Critics argued that heavy use of English in Twitter updates suggested their sources (and readers) to be overwhelmingly located outside of Iran. Bandwidth limitations, content filters, and lack of uniform access to the internet in Iran limited viewings of pictures or video clips of Iranian opposition events or street demonstrations to mainly those outside the country. Michael Jackson’s death and the subsequent drop-off of tweets on Iran-related events affirmed their suspicions that internet traffic after the presidential election was largely driven by users outside the country who had now moved on to the next big story. The Western media too would follow their lead, with Iran coverage concentrating on the nuclear issue until the reemergence of mass street protests in late December 2009. Those skeptical about the political effects of digital media in Iran nevertheless conceded that these technologies were at least successful in creating international awareness of the protest movement.

It is difficult to say that the active presence of opposition groups and their supporters on internet-based social media during this period definitively points to the emergence of a “progressive” new generation of technology-savvy Iranians ready to lead their country into the new millennium. However, I don’t believe we can simply write off the “Twitter revolution” as a mirage created by a cadre of well-heeled, well-educated Iranians in cosmopolitan north Tehran, Dubai, or Los Angeles. It may be more accurate to say that blogs, Twitter, and other internet and satellite-based news sources are an extension of existing popular practices of news gathering and dissemination in Iran. Official censorship of the mass media in Iran has existed since the beginnings of newspaper publication. Consequently, people have come to depend on the rumor mill for stories of local and national interest too sensitive (or too full of holes) to print or broadcast. Interestingly, articles from officially sanctioned newspapers and state television reports have included oblique references to some of the rumors that circulate in government offices, private parties, taxicabs, or corner shops. The news stories assume knowledge of the rumors and can make them appear to those “outside the loop” as indecipherable code. National leaders and government officials have themselves responded to, and made use of, the rumor mill as well. The newspaper columns, web entries, and sound bites of politicians concerning drafts of a never formally announced or acknowledged national unity plan this past Fall are a good example of the role the rumor mill plays in Iranian politics.

The question that remains for many observers, however, is how those outside the “wired” crowd back at home viewed the post-election crisis and the often violent encounters between protesting crowds, security forces and Basij militia?  Did the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus and media entities successfully manage the flow of information on post-election events?  Or did the “soft power” of foreign propaganda via the internet turned the masses against the Islamic revolution?  The rumor mill has ensured that no one has a monopoly on the representation of events in Iran. Digital media has broadcast and amplified these rumors, but not only through internet sites like Twitter and Facebook. Surrogate national networks via satellite, despite chronic signal jamming, not only provide political activists in Iran and abroad an opportunity to reach potentially millions of viewers at home, but also allow time for ordinary citizens to provide their take on events. While the internet remains of limited use to many Iranians, much of the news and rumors first broken there are often re-broadcast on Voice of America and BBC Persian service. In fact, the Youtube clips of street protests are perhaps most widely seen in Iran via satellite.

The response of some government officials to the foreign media challenge has been to question the credibility of their news organizations and employees through rumors of their own. One particularly stunning accusation in this regard was that the BBC’s Tehran correspondent Jon Leyne, with British Security Agents, had organized the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan to spice up a documentary he was making on the protests.

The most powerful source of rumors and unofficial news remains personal communication. Digital media has an important hand here too, though one that both the cheerleaders and skeptics of a social media revolution in Iran have by and large overlooked. In watching the Youtube clips, I am always amazed by the number of people filming the events with the cameras on their phones. Internet use may be growing quickly in Iran but mobile phones today account for nearly half of all consumer electronics spending. There are well over forty million mobile phone subscribers, up tenfold from just five years ago. I imagine that only a small proportion of those clips made have found their way onto the internet but have been passed from phone to phone via MMS and Bluetooth.* Signal blackouts before major demonstrations points to the official recognition of the importance of mobile phones and messaging to mass protests in Iran.

There is a social media revolution ongoing in Iran, though not necessarily the one that many Western experts have debated. Whether that media revolution leads to political change, however, remains an open question.

 

 

* According to the Mehr News Agency, there were over 89 million sim cards in use in Iran as of February 2012, an average of just under 1.2 mobile devices per citizen.

 

//Pedram Partovi

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