In the light of debates online about the recent Tunisian revolution and the role of social media, I thought I’d take a look at a really interesting report on the role of social media in the Iranian protests against the results of the election in June 2009.
While a surface reading of social media as a democratic media form suggests that it could circumvent government control of the media and enable rapid grassroots organising through it’s capacity to enable many-to-many conversations – it’s an argument made by Clay Shirky in “Here comes everybody”.
One of the core points that the report makes is that it is very difficult to gauge the real significance of new media formats in facilitating the protests against the Iranian government because of the lack of hard data. Views formed in the West are often formed on the basis of a skewed sample of isolated case studies, although recently, new tools for aggregation and analysis of large amounts of data have become available.
The report appeals not only for a look at hard data, but for analysis on five levels on which new media tools could be said to have an impact on the political dynamics within the Iranian situation;
- Individual transformation (how citizens think and act)
- Intergroup relations (impact on group conflict and coherence)
- Facilitating collective action (enabling co-ordination and collaboration)
- Regime policies (for example, using social media to track and repress activist)
- External attention (the extent to which the international community takes notice)
In each level of analysis, the report attempts to look at the available evidence for the utility of social media in aiding either the Iranian resistance or the Regime in promoting or resisting the protest movement.
In many respects, the report finds claims of a “Twitter Revolution” to be overstated – Twitter was not widely available to the population as a whole, and more important to informing the protests were two satellite TV stations – VOA Persian and BBC Persian (who actually turned to social media themselves to source content).
Sysomos reports that there were approximately 8,500 Twitter users who selfreported as Iranian in May 2009, and Gaurav Mishra claims that less than 100 of those were active during the election period. Such numbers pale compared to the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who participated in the protest movement at some point.
That’s not to say that Twitter didn’t prove a useful organising tool for the activists in the protest movement, or help to inform cable TV stations, blogs and Facebook pages of key information like the location of key protests.
There was circulation of information in a mediascape that included new media channels as both sources and relays. All of these lay to some extent outside of the control of the regime, which was able to control the content of state owned TV, Radio and newspaper outlets.
The regime was also active on the internet during the protests. SMS services were shut down, Internet access was “throttled”, blocking websites where “regime opponents were seen as having an advantage”. They also developed their own new media strategy, by encouraging supporters to blog and use Facebook and Twitter to promote their position. In addition, the regime saught to discredit the protest movement by positioning their use of new media as revealing their domination by Western interests.
Most disturbingly, the public nature of social media channels like Twitter enabled the Regime to crack down on the movement. The ‘leveling’ of the media playing field created by social media may well have given the protesters a public voice beyond the control of the regime, but the regime has just as much access to those platforms, and considerably greater resources.
Of course, the “level playing field” of access to media channels such as Twitter and Facebook didn’t eliminate the massive pre-existing power and resource imbalances between the regime and the protesters. A worrying thought here is that the experience gained by the Iranian regime in combating a resistance movement using social media will be shared into other governments who want to clamp down on this type of communication and organising.
Where Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere clearly did matter was in the international attention that was gained for the unfolding events in Iran. Traditional media in the west couldn’t get access for their journalists, so information from new media dominated coverage in this part of the world… of which there was a lot (until the death of Michael Jackson).
International activist networks sprang up quickly around the Iranian protests on Twitter and Facebook, enabling forms of international solidarity to emerge, including potentially the action of other states. The Obama regime indicated its sympathy (nt least by asking Twitter to delay it’s scheduled maintenance) but it was reluctant to act as this could damage the credibility of the protest movement within Iran by aligning it too closely to the West.
Thus while there was a huge amount of support expressed internationally through social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook, it was largely incapable of offering any practical support to the protests in the country. As one cynical, but ultimately accurate tweet put it,
Note to would-be revolutionaries: you can remove the green tint from your pictures now; it didn’t work
The report strikes a cautious note about over-optimistic claims made about the democratising power of new media channels, noting that it has both good and bad effects, and that there are considerable dangers associated with the backlash against activists who use public digital media channels for highly risky anti-government activism.
It may be that networked platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that enable multiway conversations could be used to facilitate radical movements in countries with repressive regimes as bandwidth penetration grows and use of these tools for radical social and political discourse expands beyond the capacity of governments to control it. Maybe. But we’re not there yet, and this is not what happened in Iran. The rest of the world was far more aware of what was happening, but remained relatively powerless to help.
The report is available for download from The United States Institute for Peace: Blogs and Bullets: Evaluating the Impact of New Media on Conflict.