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Social Networks in Iran: Not a Revolution (Yet)

17/06/2009

Since 2000 the Islamic Republic of Iran has put in place one of the most extensive media censorship regimes in the world. At least a hundred publications have been shut down by the judiciary at the behest of government, and dozens of people have been imprisoned for disseminating inappropriate material online.

The state has implemented complex and pervasive internet filtering systems, so much so that Iran is today considered one of the ‘Big Three’ of internet censorship, along with China and Saudi Arabia.

At the same time Iran has experienced massive uptake of internet services, more than any other country in the region.  The Farsi blogosphere is one of the largest language groups after English and its vibrancy and variety easily rivals that of similarly sophisticated nations across the globe.  The Iranian government has tried hard, and with some success, to restrict user access to a wide range of ‘foreign’ content, as well as cracking down on political expression within Iran itself.

Inevitably, the recent presidential campaign was in part played out online. Supporters and opponents of the two candidates wrote and argued robustly across a number of platforms, from Facebook to Twitter, and on blogs and forums. While the jury is still out on whether online activism translates into tangible political effect, there is little doubt that the internet has facilitated these forms of political expression, whether the government likes it or not.

Since the results were called last Friday internet activity relating to the elections has increased rather than decreased, reflecting the level of protests seen in Tehran and elsewhere.  Predictably dubbed the ‘Twitter Revolution’ by the press (a term used to describe earlier events in Moldova), the rampant micro-blogging platform is being used by both sides to mobilise support and organise demonstrations.

At the time of writing Mr. Mousavi’s Facebook page has nearly 60,000 supporters, for example. Iranians ‘tweet’ live from demos and protests and thousands follow these feeds in Iran and the diaspora. The government has retaliated by blocking access to some social networking sites and users have simply evaded these measures with the usual ingenuity and inventiveness that characterises both Iranians and the wider internet-using public.

There’s an awful lot more that could be written about the ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ of current events in Iran and on the internet. The real point though is that as every conflict, military or otherwise, occurs the use of the internet and other online tools ramps up around it. Think Gaza this past winter, or Estonia last summer.

Whilst I’m sceptical about whether the internet delivers democracy, as its most ardent supporters have prophesied for years, it does speak of political and politicised engagement with technology for playing out real-world issues in real time. It is highly unlikely that merely shouting loudly on the net produces real and lasting change, or even that any government will capitulate to tweeters and Facebook groups, but it does make life a lot harder for governments attempting to suppress dissent.

It’s very hard to filter dynamic environments effectively and the counterproductive aspects of censorship are very much on display. The key concept here is ‘transparency’. Ahmadinejad is being told in no uncertain terms by Iranians, ‘The world can see you, Mr. President. Better watch your step’.