Citizen Journalism During Iran’s “Green Revolution”
[Image: A supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images]
If there was one event that forecasted the Arab Spring, then it must have been Iran’s “Green Revolution” in 2009. This case study looks at the the Iranian “Green Revolution” and the use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to share a national struggle (within a very closed country) with an international audience. We will analyze how different digital tools were used by the political opposition and by Iranian citizens; then we delve into the debate surrounding “twitter revolutions”.
It is noteworthy to mention that Iranians have been defying their regime for many years before this event. As of 2008, the Iranian Blogosphere was the fourth largest Blogosphere in the world, with almost 60,000 regularly updated blogs. The Iranian blogosphere included the presence of both the conservative and the more liberal and secular political activists, who were using blogging as a way to counter the extremely repressed local media and the limited freedom of speech. The Iranian “Green Revolution” was hence mostly characterized by:
- A rigged national election that generated public outrage;
- The absence of international media who were kicked out by the regime before the riots;
- Massive “marches” or protests in all of Iran’s main cities. The first 3 or 4 protests were peaceful and very symbolic with supporters of opposition leader, Mousavi wearing Green.Some estimates of the June 16, 2009 demonstration in Tehran say that seven million people showed up (almost half of Tehran’s population).
- To stop the spread of protests the government arrested the opposition and targeted civilians; and
- Regardless of all, the world and international media outlets got detailed and up-to-date footage covering the protests and the violence that followed.
Social media tools were used for different purposes by the Iranian opposition parties and by Iranian citizens.
- Opposition leaders used both Facebook and twitter in a centralized fashion as an organizing tool, announcing the time and location of protests and coordinating the movements of their supporters. But word of mouth and mobile SMS were also used by supporters to spread the word. Mousavi had more than 65,000 supporters in his Facebook group and every message reached this army of people directly. Supporters were also asked to pass the message to others, implying that the political leaders deliberately made use of their supporters’ online and offline personal networks.
- Citizens used mostly their mobile phones to take pictures that were then transmitted to the world via YouTube, twitter and on Facebook. (See some images here). Iranians used Twitter as an important broadcast (rather than an organizing) tool to report events, slogans, and minute-by-minute protest movements—that covered events in realtime. In this way, the strategic use of digital tools by Iranian citizens turned a local struggle into a national and international one.
- The international media used the same videos provided by citizens in their coverage of Iran. A journalist from the BBC (the network was banned from Iran) commented about the inflow of information coming from Iranian citizens by saying, “the days when regimes can control the flow of information are over.”
Another lesson to take away from the Iranian experience is that it is usually the use of several digital tools and not the reliance on one or two tools that works best to get the word out.
[S]ocial movement theorists and Internet sociologists, were quick to point out that social media are just tools. And that calling them catalysts of a revolution is far fetched and ignores and discredits the courage of citizens who risked their lives as well as the social networks and organizing that existed long before these digital tools came into being.
The Debate Around “Twitter Revolutions”: Is Digital Activism Enough to Make Revolutions Happen?
After the Iranian “Green Revolution” of June 2009, the term “twitter revolution” was coined to describe what happened in Iran. While the inventors of Twitter might have been happy for the positive press they got for enabling and empowering this national protest that captured the world’s imagination (because it initially lacked violence and was happening in one of the most repressive countries); social movement theorists and Internet sociologists, were quick to point out that social media are just tools. And that calling them catalysts of a revolution is far fetched and ignores and discredits the courage of citizens who risked their lives as well as the social networks and organizing that existed long before these digital tools came into being.
Political scientists analyzing the role of technology in, “political activism, movement activism or issue activism” often remind us that, digital activism is “primarily activism” where a group of people are working together for a common goal. And that technology does not and will not answer for us the traditional questions, of:
- How do we recruit?
- How do we coordinate and organize actions?
- What is our main objective?
- How will we reach that objective?
- And who are our opposition/enemy and how will we confront them?
Digital tools have the potential of making the process of political advocacy more participatory. It is therefore how we use these tools and not the tools themselves that determine success or failure. The reality is that the digital tools have been revolutionized by activists who used them creatively to serve the social change agenda. Social change was not the original intention of the inventors of either Facebook nor Twitter. So in this sense it is activism that has empowered or “enabled” the technology and not vice versa.