Clay Shirky is wrong to be upbeat about how technology is boosting Iran’s democracy movement. If anything, it’s helping the regime crack down
Read Clay Shirky’s response to this exchange here
I am glad that Clay Shirky has offered such a balanced and much-needed rejoinder to the initial optimism that he espoused in his widely-publicised book of 2008, Here Comes Everybody. As I wrote in Prospect’s December cover story, “How Dictators Watch Us On the Web,” I, like Shirky, also view the ongoing events in Iran as a key test for social media’s growing prominence in the politics of authoritarian societies. Where I strongly disagree with Shirky, however, is in his upbeat interpretation of the current political developments in Iran.
I am much less impressed by the role that the social media has played there. The palpable digital enthusiasm surrounding the situation in Iran appears very similar to what we observed in the autumn of 2007, as the “Saffron Revolution” was getting underway in Burma. Similarly, that revolution was abetted by mobile phones and text messaging and was widely expected to loosen the junta’s tight grip on power. Today, however, one would need a powerful magnifying glass to notice any major democratic changes in that country.
One possible reading of the current situation on the ground in Tehran is that, despite all the political mobilisation facilitated by social media, the Iranian government has not only survived, but has, in fact, become even more authoritarian. The changes currently taking place in Iran are far from positive: a catastrophic brain drain triggered by the recent political repressions, a series of violent crackdowns on politically active university students who have chosen to remain in the country, the persecution of critical bloggers, journalists and editors, the appointment of more conservative ministers to the government, and mounting pressure on dissident politicians. From this perspective, the last six months could be taken to reveal the impotence of decentralised movements in the face of a ruthless authoritarian state—even when those movements are armed with modern protest tools.
Focusing on the frequency and the intensity of protests—as Shirky does in his response to my essay—may infuse us with unjustified optimism. Protests, after all, are very rare occurrences in authoritarian states. If anything, they are exceptions that often go together with elections; what happens between elections is often more important, and this is when we need to take a more holistic view of the internet’s influence on authoritarian societies. Protests in the streets of Tehran may not have been triggered by those using social media. Shirky himself acknowledges that the protests which took place in Iran on 4th November 2009—traditionally a day of anti-American protest in Iran—have happened in the past too, with or without social media. The only difference this time around is they had a different slogan: “Death to America” was replaced by opposition protesters with “Death to the Dictator.” But was it really the power of Twitter and Facebook that made Iranians stop hating America? Or was it the change of president in the White House?
Shirky’s other claim—that growing internet censorship in Iran signifies that the government is losing control—fails to persuade me as well. I see it as a logical reaction from a “rational-thinking” government concerned with a possible revolution. The regime may have tried to censor and slow down the internet simply because these are cheap and easily available options (in addition to all other forms of intimidation they are currently experimenting with). They do not have much to lose by over-censoring and, had they not engaged in censorship at all, they would also be perceived as “weak” and “ineffectual” for their very inability or reluctance to censor.
And while it is certainly true that “a modern economy simply cannot function if people can’t use their phones,” we have seen that authoritarian governments—those in Belarus, China and Moldova are good examples—are increasingly relying on what is known as “event-based internet filtering,” whereby they turn off mobile coverage in those public places where rallies are being organised. The impact on the economy is minimal. Furthermore, given that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has recently bought a 50 per cent stake in Iran’s newly privatised telecommunications company (costing $7.8 bn), profit considerations may not figure high on their list of concerns. They have much more to lose if they are thrown out of power. In other words, I simply do not see the “technological auto-immune disease” that Shirky alludes to.
Paying too much attention to who controls communication networks obfuscates the fact that the Iranian government has other ways to control the internet. One unfortunate consequence of limiting our analysis of internet control to censorship only is that it presents all authoritarian governments as technophobic and unable to capitalise on new technologies. This may have well been the case five years ago but this is no longer so.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, even Iranians abroad found themselves vulnerable to “social media” harassment by the overzealous Iranian police: any traces of online support that they expressed to the anti-Ahmadinejad protesters were carefully compiled by supporters of the regime and then used against them when they tried to enter the country. (Some even report being asked to log into Facebook at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport by the police). Those protesting in the streets found their photos posted to a series of pro-government Iranian websites, so that the “community” could help in identifying their names and abetting the authorities. We are also beginning to see a spike in fake videos—one, for example, showing protesters burning the portrait of Ali Khamenei—popping up on online, with the obvious goal of creating some internal confusion in the opposition.
The big question that I posed in my essay still remains: what do we really gain if the ability to organise protests is matched (and, perhaps, even dwarfed) by the ability to provoke, identify and arrest the protesters—as well as any other possible future dissidents? Shirky’s response, while offering some extremely useful clarifications on the potential of social media, does not answer it conclusively.
Read Clay Shirky’s final response to this exchange here