Clay Shirky is wrong to be upbeat about how technology is boosting Iran's democracy movement. If anything, it's helping the regime crack downby Evgeny Morozov / January 5, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…