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New Media and Iran's Revolutionary Impulse

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The rise of new media technology, the emergence of global networks of social groups, and the pace at which information is shared through social media, blogs and other forms of communication have all contributed to permanently altering the way political expression happens in the 21st century. It is commonly stated that US President Barack Obama was elected as a result of the advancement of new media campaigns that targeted a larger population with customized appeal and virtual convergence. Today no political group can expect to become a social movement without utilizing the internet. From the rise of Orange revolution in Ukraine to Egyptian reformist Elbaradei's movement on Facebook and the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, a new terrain now exists to express and build dissent and to challenge to the status quo.

However, the question that continues to persist regarding most of these phenomena is whether or not one can expect new media campaigns to precipitate political change. Can a Facebook group cause a revolution? Can a Twitter feed overthrow a monarchy? Can a blog empower a movement to bring down a regime? While these may not be easy to answer, they form the crux of most discussions of new media's salience in the global political environment.

No incident seemed to capture the immensity of new media's threat to the status quo more than the highly publicized Iranian elections of 2009 where the ruling party and its leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were declared winners by landslide against Nur Hussein Mousavi and the reformers in what many of the regime's critics believed were unrealistic results. With accusations of voter fraud flying, demonstrations called for by Mousavi and his supporters erupted on the streets of Tehran and on cyberspace to challenge the election results. The regime's Basij security force were charged with maintaining order and they tried to undermine the protesters For weeks, march and countermarch by the government and opposition supporters galvanized and polarized Iran with the internet acting as a conduit for each to mobilize and make a case for itself.

No single incident went unexamined as conflicting reports of the magnitude of the protests and the extent of the foreign influence on mobilization -- online and offline told conflicting stories about Iran's public sphere. Many believed the state and ruling party were made vulnerable by a cadre of tech-savvy opposition inside and outside Iran. The regime's inability to counter the online dominance of this group may have exposed the regimes impractical ways of tackling dissent when they responded with brute force on the streets. Even in those circumstances, at least as far as international public opinion, it appeared the opposition had emerged victor when footage of state security forces attacking civilians circulated online. The most famous being young protester Neda who was killed by police fire and whose dying moments were captured by film and posted on YouTube. The state's online infrastructure was simply ill-equipped to undermine this kind of decentered audience-generated citizen news production that anchored what is now known as the "Twitter Revolution."

Many months later, it appears little has come out of this incident as many opposition figures have been jailed and their newspapers shut down. However, it is more important to note that in the future it will be very difficult for the Iranian hardliners to monopolize the political scene without being met by a tidal wave of reform-leaning youth across the country and beyond. Yet one cannot overlook the role that those very hardliners played in advocating for the technology now being used by their political adversaries. What aspect of the Islamic republic's guiding principles made this vibrant blogosphere and online opposition possible?

When talking about Iran as an Islamic state, one should not be naively deceived into thinking that the country is living in the technological Dark Ages. Quite the contrary. In fact, information technologies have been an indispensable feature of all major political movements in Iran. It was during the revolutionary period prior to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 that the republic was assisted by mass media. The Shah's monopoly on traditional media--radio and television--was circumvented by audiotape recordings of Ayatollah Khomenei (then in exile) and on clandestine shortwave radio stations broadcasting into the country. These attempts to infiltrate the Iranian nation-state and undermine the political establishment's control on information served as a building block in enshrining grassroots activist media as a centerpiece in Iranian revolutionary politics, from Mousaddeq to Mousavi.

With Ayatollah Khomeini declaring that Iran had to be on the cutting edge of scientific innovation, starting in 1979, the country embarked on a journey to create a public awareness of media and communication. While this was done partially to export the Islamic revolution, it nevertheless set the country on the path of rapid media development. For instance, Iran was an early adopter of internet technology and by 2002, internet providers in Iran such as ParsOnline were offering ADSL connections, four times faster than connections in the United Kingdom at the time. Today, while statistics are difficult to acquire and validate, Iran's Telecom Company (TCI) boasts over 25 million users. In 2001,the Economist published a report stating that Internet cafes have mushroomed across Iran with a massive concentration in Tehran, with some saying over 1500. By the middle of the 2000s, Iran could boast over 60,000 blogging sites in Persian.

However, it was perhaps the existence of this technology that proved to be a double-edged sword for the revolution and the state. While the regime was making sure the hardware and the infrastructure both promoted and disseminated the Islamic revolution, they may have inadvertently created a communication system they could not monitor nor control. The 2009 elections showed that the Iranian new media space was bursting at the seams as the regime scrambled to silence dissent in the streets and online, with little success in the latter.

So to a great extent, the conditions that led to these protests are a product of Iran's theocratic regime. At the time of the revolution, literacy rates were at 57% while today they are at 80%. The country's media environment is animated by the plethora of voices and channels, including 36 Persian satellite channels available in the country. Several hundred thousand weblogs are in the Persian language, making Farsi the third most widely used language in blogs. Nasrin Alavi's 2005 book We are Iran speaks of this generation of online expression which is a response to the confines of public life in Iran and to its creative activism -- from statements of personal anguish to networks for organization and mobilization. So even before the elections, the opposition had already staked their claim to a large part of the Iranian blogosphere.

The demographic make up of Iran is the most obvious precipitator of the reform movement's appeal and communication savviness with more than 70% of the 70 million population being under the age of 30. It is this sizable swath of the Iranian citizenry which poses the greatest threat to the state's authority and its ability to create, impose, disseminate and control national discourses, thereby containing its hegemonic reach and undermining its monopoly on public life.

One of the most informative volumes on the role of media leading up to the elections is Mehdi Semati's 2008 edited volume entitled Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with Globalization and the Islamic State. One of the authors in the volume, Babak Rahimi argues that internet communication technology (ICT) "continues to serve as a distinct venue of resistance to conservative rule." Online activists have created a decentralized network that tackles "political and social taboos ranging from sex and politics to Islam and democracy" (p. 37). Semati corroborates this, stating that online dissent was infused by influential individuals who utilized technology to propagate their ideas especially those disillusioned by the political stagnation, including notables Abbas Akdi, Akbar Ganji, Saeed Hajjarian, Alirez Alavitab, and Abbas Abdi. Hence, in contrast to the state controlled media, the totality of internet outlets from and about Iran comprise an alternative discourse.

Much of this dissent can be traced to the student protests of the late 1990s. Ten years ago, in 1999 specifically, students demonstrated in Tehran against the political establishment, an unprecedentedly brazen act during that time. Many argue that this moment has shifted the contours of the political establishment and how legitimacy is gained by the Iranian government.

With much of the population in the country having been raised under the Islamic republic's counter-hegemonic ideology, subverting authority may become engrained in a manner that does not give the regime and its clerics immunity. Today Iran is torn between two competing discourses of counter-hegemony, each perceiving a different power center being at the root of their misfortune. While Ahmadinejad and supporters point to Western double standards, mistrust, and animosity towards the Islamic republic as the ideological adversary responsible for the nation's ill-fate, the opposition perceives Ahmadinejad and the rule of the conservative mullahs as the prime source of disempowerment and decline. Both are able to bring hundreds of thousands to the streets in shows of power unlike any antagonistic political platforms worldwide. While these two competing worldviews and visions may have their communicative strengths in different media spheres--the state in the traditional broadcast realm and the opposition online, the two share one parent. Both were born of Iran's resilient and stubborn revolutionary impulse.