Political insurrection is never solely driven by technology. But it is profoundly changing the landscape of modern protest—in favour of those fighting for democracyby / January 6, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
President Ahmadinejad: the Iranian regime is more than willing to temporarily prevent citizens from using social networks
In “Why the internet is failing Iran’s activists” Evegeny Morozov argues that the protests which took place in the streets of Tehran in November 2009 may not have been triggered by social media—a sentiment with which I am in complete agreement. Just as the printing press didn’t exclusively cause the Protestant Reformation, the source of those protests in Tehran, as with all protests, was the willingness of the people to defy their government. This does not mean, however, that those protests were like all previous ones, save for the slogan—which in 2009 was notably directed against dictatorship, rather than the traditional “death to America” sentiment. The crucial point to glean from the protests of 2009 is that, just as the Protestant Reformation was shaped by the printing press, the Iranian insurrection was and is being shaped by social media.
While the use of social media in the Iranian protests quickly garnered the label “Twitter Revolution,” the real revolution was the use of mobile phones, which allowed the original protesters to broadcast their actions to other citizens and to the wider world with remarkable speed and immediacy. This characteristic, of a rapidly assembling and self-documenting public, is more than just a new slogan.
The basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronised public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public (the monarchies of Europe, in Habermas’s telling, become authoritarian governments within the contemporary scenario). Put another way, even taking into account the increased availability of surveillance, the net value of social media has shifted the balance of power in the direction of Iran’s citizens.
As Evgeny notes, however, that hypothesis might be wrong. Or, if it is right, the ways in which it is right might be minor, or rare, or take decades to unfold.
Yet while the Ahmadinejad regime is clearly willing to use event-based internet filtering, whereby mobile network coverage or internet access is temporarily blocked—a strategy we might call a “temporary Burma”—I do not believe that Iran can become a “permanent Burma.” The kind of information shutdown required to keep all forms of public assembly from boiling over will be beyond the authorities in Iran. Such shutdowns, if widespread or long term, would amount to what we might call a “technological auto-immune disease,” both because daily life in Tehran affords so many more opportunities for public assembly, and because however willing Ahmadinejad is to hold onto power, the Iranian state has gone considerably further than Burma in resting its legitimacy on both elections and nominally neutral theocrats. Both of these pillars are, however, being shaken.
Morozov pessimistic reading seems to suggest that the hold on power of any authoritarian state, and in particular Iran, is strong enough to withstand even long-term popular discontent. What’s more, the principal effect of such dissent will be that Iran (and by extension most authoritarian countries) will move successfully towards the Burmese model of steady control over communications and dissent, but that this will happen only to the degree that the public insists on self-assembly and self-expression. Though I doubt that this will be the case in Iran, I do agree with Morozov that it is a possibility.