Iran and Social Media – watershed moments in history

For anyone following any of the reports coming our of Iran it isn’t very difficult to see that to potential for change is sitting on the cusp. It’s been bloody, it’s been violent and people have been hurt and some have died. Change doesn’t come without a cost but most of the world are only getting an inkling of the cost being incurred by the people of Iran. News organization after organizations have been tossed from the country and those mainstream media reporters and photographers who have managed to stay do so at great risk to their lives.

The only window we have at this point into this watershed moment in Iran’s history is because of those gallant and dedicated journalists and photographers. However they are not alone in the documentation of change. Right at their side, like never before, are the people of Iran. Using tools that didn’t exist when Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the country in 1979 the people are telling the world what is happening in their country.

Iran and its quiet world of social media

I won’t claim to be any more knowledgeable about the politics and inner workings of Iran than the next person – that would be foolish. What I do know is that for some time the Iranian people have long been users of social media tools like Facebook, and now Twitter as well as Friendfeed. It has never been an overtly publicized usage as it is here in the US or other countries around the world. It has been a quiet usage because their government is well known for throwing up blocks to keep them from being able to access the web.

As a result the knowledge of how to get around the government filters is passed quietly among those who want the world to know what is going inside of the country. As Anne-Marie Corley writes at the Technology Review blog [referencing her conversations with Ethan Zuckerman]

Zuckerman attributes the continued information flow in part to “latent capability”: savvy Internet users in Iran already know how to circumvent blocking measures, so in a political upheaval they don’t have to relearn the process. “The longer a country censors and the more aggressively it censors,” says Zuckerman, “the more incentive it gives citizens to learn how to get around that.” Because Iran has been filtering since at least 2004, says Zuckerman, a lot of Iranians already know how to use proxies–computers that route traffic around a government-imposed block. So even if you’re just using a proxy to surf porn, says Zuckerman, suddenly, a political crisis hits and you already have the means to communicate.

However the recent events in the country have raised that previous quiet use of social media into a large worldwide voice that isn’t letting this event fade quietly away under the repressive measure of a government being called into question by its citizenry. In most countries this kind of uproar would be one thing to deal with but it Iran this isn’t just an outcry against a questionably elected government. As of Friday it is also a voice against the religious leaders of the country and that – for Iran – adds a whole different meaning to what is going on.

As CNN foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria said in an interview about what was happening in the country

No, I don’t mean the Iranian regime will fall soon. It may — I certainly hope it will — but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. I mean that this is the end of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian regime.

The regime’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, laid out his special interpretation of political Islam in a series of lectures in 1970. In this interpretation of Shia Islam, Islamic jurists had divinely ordained powers to rule as guardians of the society, supreme arbiters not only on matters of morality but politics as well. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, this idea was at its heart. Last week, that ideology suffered a fatal wound.

What is going to happen in Iran is anyone’s guess right now. All we do know really is how little we know and how little is making it out of the country. Unlike revolutions before this one though there has never been the concentration of the world on what is happening and that is only possible because of social media. For the people of Iran though this isn’t a story about social media. For them social media is just a tool to be able to tell the story of Iran – their story.

Social Media’s growing voice in the world

While a lot of attention is being showered on Twitter and to a lesser degree the other tools of social media like Facebook and Friendfeed the idea that these tools are something new to the world of social change couldn’t be further from the truth. As Ethan Zuckerman points out in a recent post

I’ve been asking some of the reporters I’ve spoken with where they were on other recent social media and protest stories. Citizen media has emerged as one of the key spaces for journalism in Fiji in the wake of a coup government that’s censoring mainstream media. It’s been a key source of information in Madagascar as that country’s suffered through a violent change of government. (One reporter who I mentioned this to remarked that Madagascar was “just a speck of an island somewhere”. That speck is twice the size of Great Britain and has the population of Australia…) In Guatemala, online media publicized the assasination of a lawyer by forces close to the president… and government authorities began arresting people for twittering the story to amplify it. These weren’t huge stories for most newspapers – the Iran story is huge not because of the social media aspect, but because protests in Iran are a huge story independent of citizen media.

As well Noam Cohen points out in a New York Times post

Social networking, a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon, has already been credited with aiding protests from the Republic of Georgia to Egypt to Iceland. And Twitter, the newest social-networking tool, has been identified with two mass protests in a matter of months — in Moldova in April and in Iran last week ….

Where once we might have cracked jokes about all those silly tweets and pointless poking on Facebook suddenly they are providing us with a way to have front row seats to a changing world. Like never before the people directly involved in social change within their country are able to let the outside world know what is going on – with words, pictures and video. As you saw from Paul Short’s post earlier today these tools have the very power to bring a young woman’s death into our homes.

Only iconic pictures of a dead Kent State protester, or the young Vietnamese child running screaming from napalm burns, or the aftermath of Hiroshima carry the same impact. Except this time you can see the life draining from her – you can’t escape it because it is real and you know it. It isn’t state manipulated information or photoshopped cheering crowds around a false victor.

The way we look at our world, or the way we participate in our elections will ever be the same. Social media has changed all that.

The aftermath and responsibility

Just as we have had front row seats to what is happening in Iran we will probably have as well those same seats to see how it ends – good or bad. In the meantime how do we deal with sitting in those front row seats?

In some cases we have seen DDoS attacks against Iranian government sites but at the same time we don’t question is this really the best way to help. As Evgeny Morozov points out in a post at the Foreign Policy net.Effect blog

But these little subtleties get lost on an angry online mob that wants revenge on Ahmadinejad without taking the effort to educate themselves about the repercussions of their cyber-activity. It’s a shame that some American bloggers are participating in this campaign and are even encouraging others to take up their “cyber-arms”. Not only is this irresponsible and probably illegal, it also hurts users in Iran and gives their hard-line government another reason to suspect “foreign intervention” – albeit via computer networks – into Iranian politics.

The net effect of this being of course the pulling of the Iranian Internet plug which would then leave us totally blind to what was happening. More importantly though it would also take away the one important way for those Iranians trying to alert the world of what was happening.

Sure it might give you a gratifying sense of doing something for the ’cause’ but the fact is that many of the so-called anti-Iranian Government actions on the web may actually exasperating the situation. As hard as it might be sometimes the best help you can give people to to do everything in your power to make sure that the only door they have to the world stays open.

I have long maintained that Social Media has the power to be a changing force in our society it all depends on how we use the tools given to us to be a part of that change. Even in the few short weeks since the Twitter Revolution of Maldova the idea that these self-same tools that we play silly games on could be a potential factor in a change of country from both a political and religious perspective is amazing.

As is Iran standing at a cusp of change so is our larger world but we don’t see it yet. While some will definitely laugh at me and suggest the cranky old fart has finally lost it I will stand here and say that Social Media is coming of age. It is too bad that it is taking the look from the dying eyes of a young woman in Iran in a video on YouTube to show us this.