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The Myths And Realities Of New Media In Iran's Green Movement

News of the mass protests last June spread quickly -- largely through real-world word of mouth.
News of the mass protests last June spread quickly -- largely through real-world word of mouth.
By Golnaz Esfandiari
WASHINGTON -- One year ago, Iran's “Twitter revolution" made headlines in the Western media. Yet in Iran itself, no Twitter revolution was taking place at all.

As several opposition members and bloggers tell RFE/RL, if any social networking innovations are to receive credit, they should be Facebook and YouTube.

Following the announcement of the results of the vote on June 12, 2009, large numbers of Iranians took to the streets to protest what they saw as a fraudulent poll that led to the reelection of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Activists inside the country say the protests over the election results were spontaneous, and spread by word of mouth through traditional networks such as family and colleagues. A more modern medium, text messaging, aided this effort when the Iranian government wasn't shutting down mobile-phone networks, which happened quite often. And satellite television broadcasts were also a valuable tool in informing people about the protests.

The demonstrations were born of outrage, and sustained by the even greater outrage that resulted from the government's brutal reaction to the protests.

Social networking sites and new media played a major role in publicizing the postelection protests. They also facilitated sharing information among opposition activists and documenting their struggle.

But as popular Iranian blogger Alireza Rezaei tells RFE/RL, new media didn't mobilize and embolden protesters as some claimed. Rezaie, who participated in the postelection protests in the Iranian capital, says what happened last year in Iran was a mass movement made up of real people -- many of whom didn't use, or even have access to, the Internet and new media.

"From the beginning, the Green Movement was not created and did not move forward [in an organized manner] -- it wasn't like some made a decision and informed others,” Rezaei said. “When you'd walk in the streets, at work, wherever you'd go, people were talking about it and they all wanted to react."

Digital Record Of Violence

The outrage of many Iranian citizens found voice in the chants of "Where is my vote?" in the streets, and the shouts of "Allah Akbar" and "Death to the dictator" from the rooftops at night.

When their cries were met with force, they used their cell phones to capture the scenes of violence, including beatings of peaceful protesters by security forces and killings in the streets of Tehran and other cities.

The videos were quickly posted on YouTube and shared on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Millions of people watched those videos, including the video clip of Neda Agha Soltan's last moments after she was fatally shot at a peaceful protest in the Iranian capital. As a result, she became the symbol of an opposition movement that has come under fire by Iran's leaders.

During the postelection violence, Western media were banned from covering the protests, and domestic outlets were under a clampdown. In the absence of independent media, Iranian citizens felt it was their duty to document the postelection events. "Each citizen a medium" was and remains one of the slogans of the Green Movement. And YouTube became the medium that allowed citizen journalists to share scenes of defiance, courage, and violence, bloody faces and burning cars, to other Iranians and to people around the world.

One Tehran-based journalist and supporter of the Green Movement said during those days that Facebook turned into an important tool for the opposition movement to share information and news.

Facebook was blocked in Iran in 2006. Several months before the 2009 vote, authorities unblocked the social networking website, to the joy of many young Iranians.

Yet the journalist, speaking to RFE/RL a year later on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, explains that authorities again blocked Facebook in the weeks before the June 12 vote because of the extensive use of the site by supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi.

"Before the election, the impact of Facebook was clear and it forced the government to block access to it. I still remember the protest that took place on June 13, a day after the vote. When video of the protest was posted on YouTube and shared on Facebook, the number of protesters grew," he says.

The journalist says that Facebook remains a main tool of information-sharing and discussion for some "Green activists," but notes that it also poses the danger of limiting activists to a virtual world that distances them from the realities on the ground.

Rezaei, who had to flee Iran a few months ago and is currently in France, also believes that Facebook played an important role for sharing uncensored information about developments related to the Green opposition movement.

He remembers how some of the key reformist figures jailed in the postelection crackdown and their families would inform others about their situation via Facebook. One of them was the imprisoned former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. “It was clear he had been asked not to talk about [what he'd been through and the protests], but he updated his Facebook status just to say hello to his friends and fans. He was on Facebook despite everything," Rezaei says.

Twitter’s Role ‘Exaggerated’

Rezaei says blogs were also important in last year's events. He said many Iranians used their blogs to report about the street protests, and that made them the target of Iranian authorities who filtered their blogs and arrested a number of them.

Twitter played a significant role in bringing the world attention's to the street protests and the use of force by security forces. The U.S. State Department reportedly asked Twitter to delay some scheduled maintenance in order to allow Iranians to communicate as the protests grew more powerful. Former U.S. national security adviser Mark Pfeifle said Twitter should get the Nobel Peace Prize because "without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy."

Yet Iranian blogger and Internet activist known as Vahid Online, who was in Tehran during the 2009 events, tells RFE/RL that Twitter's role inside Iran was exaggerated by outside observers.

News about the Iranian protests, videos, and pictures were tweeted and re-tweeted under the #iranelection hashtag by many people around the world, including Iranian expats who turned their avatars green in an expression of solidarity with the opposition movement.

"Twitter never became very popular in Iran. [But] because the world was watching Iran with such [great interest] during those days, it led many to believe falsely that Iranian people were also getting their news through Twitter," the Iranian blogger said.

The blogger denies claims that Iran experienced a “Twitter revolution.” He says that some Internet users encouraged others on social networking sites to participate in the protests, but he believes that Facebook and Twitter were not used for coordination purposes.

Activists believe that the Internet and new media, particularly Facebook, will remain a platform of information sharing for opposition activists who use proxies to access blocked opposition websites and social networking sites.

Rezaei says more than anything, the Green Movement is about people who want freedom and democracy. Many believe they will remain a challenge for the Iranian regime, which has launched an extensive intimidation campaign aimed at silencing the opposition through means including arrests, torture, threats, and increased online censorship.
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Afshin from: Manchester, England
June 12, 2010 13:20
I am afraid you are barking at the wrong tree. I know that new media play a major role and they have become a part of some people's lives, but with regard to the Green Movement, it is a prepheral issue. Looking at the role of Twitter, Facebook and other aspects of the new media and thinking that they may boost the Green Movement and weaken the Islamic regime, is a typical view held by many non-Iranians and Iranians who live abroad. These souls usually focus on Tehran and the well-to-do Iranains who live in nothern Tehran - those who were often seen in post-election unrests on TV or U-tube, etc.
There are far more important issues that Radio Free Europe can focus on to help the Green Movement and the people of Iran. Please try, if you can, to look at what is going on in Iran from inside out and not from outside in. Some Iranians who have lived abroad for years loose that touch and see things like non-Iranains and analyse events in Iran from that standpoint.

I am afraid some of your articles direct English-speaking people to the wrong ally when it comes to the Green Movement. Persian radios abroad, including the BBC, Radio Fada and Radio France Internationale are far more in tune with what is going on in Iran. They mainly focus on important issues that can make a difference to the Green Movcement and the Iranian people who are trying to gain their freedom from the dictotarial regime that has ruined Iran.




by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
June 12, 2010 21:48
Golnaz, I answered some of these points in a similar article you did for Foreign Policy:
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/06/07/the_twitter_revolution_that_wasnt

I'll reiterate:

1) You'd be hard put to find people who actually believe Iranians organized their revolution *on* Twitter, and stayed informed inside *through* Twitter. It's a myth about a myth. I think most people Twittering in the first place "get it" that Twitter is merely a relay system that keeps *some* Iranians with access inside the county connected to other Iranians in the diaspora and a wider audience of non-Iranians.

2) While I totally respect the reality of "those on the ground," virtual worlds of Facebook and Twitter aren't in some sort of silo, or somehow singularly a bad thing. Again, they are *connecting* to people -- some inside Iran, some outside Iran, some not Iranian but just interested, around Iran. I think if you look at these different media forms and technologies not as verticals, but see them more as very permeable horizontals, you won't feel so indignant that "everybody gets it wrong when they call it a Twitter revolution". Twitter is a common denominator of links, taking people to blogs and Facebook, too.

3) It's ok to call these events "Twitter Revolutions". They are covered on Twitter and watched on Twitter and Twitter plays *some* role in relaying info and keeping support from outside involved.

4) Twitter isn't just on the cell phones of affluent people or those lucky enough to be outside a zone where cell phone service isn't turned off. Twitter.com is a website just like facebook.com or livejournal.com If you can concede facebook.com a big role, you can concede twitter.com the same kind of role. In that sense, it is merely one more blog and one more forum that people sitting in homes or offices access. People who sit home and watch or merely relay information are important in revolutions, too; not everybody is brave enough to go and get their head bashed by police and it takes all kinds.

5) Facebook is good because some of the anonymity is removed, some verification of identity is possible, and the regime's manipulation is lessened. But Twitter identity gets established too and the system is massive and permeable enough to be self-correcting.

I don't ascribe any magic properties to technology whatsoever; as an early adapter of Twitter I was constantly debunking those ascribing utopian powers to it, pointing out, for example that an American jailed in Egypt didn't Twitter his way out of jail; American foreign policy and financial support of Egypt got him out of jail, and then nobody could Twitter his interpreter out of prison. It's like the old joke - you have freedom of speech when you demonstrate on Red Square; you just don't have freedom of speech *after* you demonstrate on Red Square.

Even so, there is an accelerating and amplifying effect from Twitter and it connects people more in various ways. This has its pluses and minuses, both regarding alienation and engagement.

by: Noushin from: NY
June 13, 2010 18:05
Many on Twitter here felt they're part part of the movement inside Iran. The worse was when they would call on Iranians to take to the streets and get killed while they were sitting at home and tweeting and retweeting. Nauseating!
This piece and your commentary for Foreign Policy is a long needed correction to a lot of that nonsense and the ridiculous notion of "Iran's Twitter revolution".
In Response

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
June 19, 2010 03:32
Noushin, I certainly wouldn't call on anybody in Iran to go out on the streets and get killed while I sit and twitter or just watch on Youtube. I think people in Iran decide the level of activism and risk they wish to assume without any twittering back-seat drivers. The question is whether you would rather have an engaged world audience wishing this movement well and following its travails and trying to raise its suppression with their own governments -- or not. That's all. It's not about being fabulous.

by: Ali from: Manchester
June 14, 2010 10:12
@Afshin I bet your either very old or very old fashioned. Have you ever used Twitter or do you have a Facebook page? I bet not. New media and their role in publicizing the fight of the green movement and informing the world about it NOT a peripheral issue. It is very significant and I actually think the role of new media has been downplayed in this article. The first videos of the June 12 anniversary of the coup in Iran surfaced on Twitter and Facebook. Get on Twitter, man and read the article, here is a quote for you:

"Before the election, the impact of Facebook was clear and it forced the government to block access to it. I still remember the protest that took place on June 13, a day after the vote. When video of the protest was posted on YouTube and shared on Facebook, the number of protesters grew,"
In Response

by: afshin from: Manchester, UK
June 14, 2010 20:10
Ali, I bet you are neither Ali nor from Manchester ! Keep twitting and, enshallah (God Willing), you will contribute to the fall of the Islamic regime by the Green Movement whose weaknesses as an opposition - if it can be called that - are far greater than its strengths! If you look at the Green Movement from this standpoint, then it may be possible to see that there are far more important issues that RFE/RL or other radios can focus on to help the movement.
Anyway, since you portayed yourself young and with it, keep twitting - arezu bar javanan eib nist !

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