Hamid Tehrani and a nuanced view of social media in Iran

I’m behind on my blogging, because my copresenters this morning gave extremely rich, complex talks – it’s going to take me more time to get their accounts up, and the symposium keeps going forward. We lead off this afternoon with Isaac Mao, introducing a set of speakers who are speaking on cloud activism, ways in which we can shape the emerging cloud for positive social purposes.

Hamid Tehrani, Iran editor for Global Voices, leads off, with an analysis of reality and myths around social media and the recent Iranian elections and protests. “If anyone had questions about the power of citizen media, those questions were answered by the Iran protests,” he tells us. People risked their lives to post to Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook. But the reality of digital activism in Iran is complicated and not always well understood.

Blogs are vital tools for activists, used to communicate and to organize. A bus strike was organized via blogs, and blogs have emerged as the preferred platform for reformist voices to communicate. Youtube has become a powerful tool for complaining about sexual harrasment at universities and the corruption of ayatollahs.

So why did the government unblock these powerful tools a few months before the June 12th election? Tehrani argues that they wanted to attract more voters and make election look more legitimate. Three of the four candidates used social media very succesfully – they’d learned to use social media in part because alternative journalists had been chased from the independent press and moved online. Citizen media acts as the main information platform for protesters and opposition, and as
a bridge between inside and outside Iran. Moussavi’s Facebook profile has 120,000 followers – it functions as a very powerful publishing platform in English and Persian to share information with audiences around the world.

The internet channel goes both ways. Information about Neda’s death came out via digital media, then became the face of the protest movement worldwide. Cartoons drawn in Iran spread over the internet, but cartoons from Canadian media showed up, printed out and on signs, at Tehran protests.

Here’s the myth – some Western journalists shifted their focus from the role of Iranian people to the role of technology. Tehrani considers it amazing – and shameful – to suggest that there should be a nobel peace prize for Twitter, rather than for the Iranian protesters.

“Twitter does not organize demonstrations.” The Iranian government can read tweets, so this is a lousy place to organize. Twitter can spread misinformation. One tweet claimed 700,000 people protesting at a mosque in Tehran – this “fact” got spread around Twitter… but it seems that fewer than 5,000 people actually showed up in real life. We can misunderstand who’s actually speaking on Twitter – people represent themselves as being on the ground, while they’re actually in the diaspora… or in some cases, might not actually be Iranian activists. Finally, he warns that citizen media may be becoming “militant media” in an Iranian context.

In other words, Twitter mattered in Tehran… but it’s really, really complicated.

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