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 Clay Shirky / January 6, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…