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Iran, Independence Day and the Limits of Online Politics

BY Colin Delany | Sunday, July 5 2009

Cross-posted on e.politics

For now, the nascent revolution in Iran seems to have stalled. With its leaders in hiding and the government trumpeting "confessions" from organizers and journalists, I can only imagine how Iranians hoping for change feel. For sympathetic outsiders, the dominant emotion must be helpless frustration, since we can't DO anything to help, regardless of how many videos we watch or tweets we post. Even if we could act directly, we'd only provide the regime with more fuel for its campaign to pin the protests on outside agitators.

The problem is, of course, that the government in Iran has access to more than just rhetorical ammunition: they have men carrying rifles with real bullets. For all of the potential of the internet to change political communications, it doesn't change the fundamental nature of power, which a philosopher of note (Chairman Mao) once said comes from the barrel of a gun. As Katrin Verclas asked after one too many techno-utopic presentations at last week's Personal Democracy Forum, has the speaker been to North Korea lately?

America's own experience illuminates this truth: on July 4th, we celebrated the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, but no piece of paper ever fought in a battle -- our independence from Great Britain was won by a great many men (and a few women) with guns and the determination to use them. But here's where it gets interesting: a gun is only as powerful as the will of the person aiming it, and those flimsy pieces of paper and their electronic descendents can make a huge difference on that front. Declarations may not fight a battle, but they can help win a war.

Iran is no stranger to the power of communications technology to create the conditions for radical change, since many observers credit the distribution of the Ayatollah Khomeini's sermon's in the late 1970s via easily copied cassette tapes (new technology at the time) with helping to galvanize Iranian society against the Shah. Once in power, Khomeini's successors have done their best to limit the ability of opponents to similarly undermine their own authority, in part by restricting access to electronic communications. Periodic government shutdowns of cell phones and the internet received a great deal of international attention during the recent post-election protests, but apparently Iranian authorities have long imposed limits on networked information, for instance throttling access to video sites to the extent that YouTube is often unusable in the country.

Since the internet turns out to have an "off" button, most of the actual on-the-street organizing in Iran seems to have been done via word-of-mouth, text messaging, phone calls and other one-to-media, though many announcements have also been posted on websites and online social networks. But as Andy Carvin and Ethan Zuckerman have argued, the main role of the internet in post-election Iran seems to have been to amplify the voices of a relatively few people so that the outside world can hear them: since Twitter posts or YouTube videos can be tagged as being related to Iran, the rest of us can find them, read them, watch them and and copy them faster than any government could delete them.

But amplifying a sound usually distorts it, and Westerners watching from afar can easily get the impression that reformers are the only Iranians active online. In part that's a natural filter, since most of us tend to seek out and distribute information we agree with. But it also reflects the fact that reform-minded Iranians are more likely to have friends and family who have left the country or to have been abroad themselves, and much of the information spread worldwide has been distributed by members of the Iranian diaspora, whether or not it actually originated in Iran itself. More fundamentally, the outsiders are naturally going to pay attention to messages written in a language we can read, and since most of us don't read Farsi, those people in the country quite happy with the status quo are functionally shut out of the global conversation.

In fact, as a Morningside Analytics analysis has shown, Iranian online public discourse is actually quite broad, with for instance a strong set of pro-government writers active in the Persian-language blogosphere. And the government itself has used technology skillfully at times, for instance posting videos of protesters and asking citizens to help identify them -- crowdsourcing repression! Again, the American experience is illustrative: while we remember pro-independence pamphleteers (proto-bloggers) such as Thomas Paine and the authors of the Federalist papers, they weren't the only people trying to convince their neighbors to take a stand in 1776 -- they just happened to win the war, and those public voices loyal to the British government either moved to Canada or learned to keep their mouths shut.

As the literary/political struggle in pre-Revolutionary America shows, pamphlets alone don't win wars, but they CAN lead people to take actions that do. The words of America's Founding Fathers have echoed through revolution after revolution down to the 20th century -- even Ho Chi Minh modeled Vietnam's Declaration of Independence (issued after the Japanese surrender in 1945) on ours. For now, the current government of Iran has the guns and bullets and the men to wield them. But what happens if those soldiers or militiamen refuse to pull the trigger?

As one analyst on an NPR talk show said a couple of weeks ago, the 2009 Iranian elections have revealed the the "Republic" part of Iran's Islamic Republic to be a sham. In that sense, we've been down this road many times before -- Iran's leaders have shown themselves to be just another Mugabe, dictators clothed in righteous revolutionary robes. Though we have no way of knowing whether average Iranian citizens regard state-run media as truthful or just a Persian Pravda, for now the government's control over television, radio and newspapers has allowed it to portray the protests in the worst possible light. But let the right set of ideas take hold, let the government lose legitimacy in the minds of enough people in the right places, and revolutionary words may turn into decisive action in the real world. For now, the rest of us can only watch, and hope.

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