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Scola's Ten Lessons from Iran, Some Big, Some Small

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, July 10 2009

At last week's Personal Democracy Forum I was lucky enough to sit on a lunch time panel on the intersection of recent events in Iran and social media alongside Mobile Active's Katrin Verclas, NPR's Davar Iran Ardalan, Morningside Analytics' John Kelly, and YouTube's Olivia Ma. To organize my thoughts in preperation for the session, I quickly scribbled down a list of ten things I'd thought I'd learned from the early days of the Iran experience. No one, I'm fairly convinced, has a very strong handle yet on what went down in Iran when it comes to how technology drove the protests themselves -- or on whether tech-empowered support that provided some oxygen to the resistance movement. I, to be sure, don't. So in putting together my list I punted on big questions. Instead, I focused on process: What did we see about how new and old media mixed it up in the Iran context? What was the nature of the engagement for those of us with little real connection to Iran? What political elements served to trigger what social reactions? I called the list something like Scola's Top Ten Lessons from Iran, Some Big, Some Small.

After our panel wrapped, dozens of people came up and asked if I might post a copy of my lessons learned to the web. Okay, I'm stretching the truth. It was something like three or four people altogether. But there seemed to be enough interest to justify posting doing some very light editing of the list and posting it to this space.

Some of the ten I don't feel as strongly about as when I sketched them out two weekends ago. On others, I'm more convinced now that they're on target. Each of the ten needs to be fleshed out far more fully. But with the caveat that these are my rough notes on potential lessons (some of which might only be useful in their wrongness), I offer my thinking on ten things we might learn from Iran.

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  1. The way first-person reporting and fact checking flowed so gracefully and fluidly is an argument in favor of the idea that the relationship between "persistent" media (read, MSM, traditional media, etc.) and social media can be usefully symbiotic, rather than adversarial. We saw again and again examples where video shot on the streets of Tehran by someone brave enough to capture the scene on their cell phone or handheld camera would bubble up to the New York Times or Huffington Post. Those outlets would vet the content using either their internal resources or crowd wisdom, and then post it. In one memorable instance, the question came up of what song was being sung in a video clip posted to the Times. And so, it was linked off to a Wikipedia page that hosted an English translation to a Farsi song that turned out to be patriotic in nature. A video like that -- shot by an "amateur," vetted by professional journalists, bolstered by collaborative media -- was the product of the Internet more than it was any one person or outlet. That kind of symbiosis betters every media maker involved better, making them more powerful and extending their reach.

  2. The methods we now have to make sense of the what, where, and how of what we see online aren't great. What I mean by that is that so much of the reporting and first-hand materials we saw swirling about lacked a useful trail. [Ed. note-- Micah mentioned this yesterday in his write-up of a call with Katrin Verclas.] Videos from street protests that took place on a Monday, for example, were being posted to YouTube or Vimeo or Flickr on a Thursday, which was a recipe for confusion over what was actually taking place in Iran. Then there was the fact that many of the most powerful photos of the events in Iran were posted to Flickr under a traditional copyright license, rather than, say, Creative Commons. Several times I ran into photos that I'd have love to have reposted on techPresident. But being a semi-respectably journalistic outfit, I was reluctant to violate whatever rights the person who took the photo had hoped to claim. Both suggest that more attention needs to be paid to the meta-data that goes along with all the creative content we're producing. [Ed. note -- As Katrin rightly noted at our session, though, that isn't without risks: activists might have a strong personal interest in blurrying the details of the where and how of the work that they do.]

  3. The practices that make the web such a vibrant conversation aren’t baked into some of newer tools. The power of the web, blogging, and much of "web 1.0" comes from the hyperlink. Linkbacks are how we bolster arguments and create a shorthand that lets information move quickly than it can offline. The social media around Iran, in some cases, broke with that practice. Two examples make this point. Retweets on Twitter, which were enormously popular and powerful here, don't -- by existing design -- link back to the supposed "first tweet." Each retweet sprouted anew without an easy means to connect back to its point of origin. Can retweets link back to source tweets? Should they? Also, many of live blogs and aggregators we saw spring up lacked internal links to specific bits of news and commentary. Both (mal)practices can cut down on conversation because it's tougher to extend an argument or back up a point if you can't link off to other people's thoughts.

  4. As much as we share an online culture, the time has probably come to start thinking about media literacy as part of the norms of the Internet. When we retweet or even link off to a blog post, we're all engaging in acts of reporting. We could use some journalistic training, as an antidote to spreading both plain bad information (Wait, Jeff Goldblum died?) and intentionally malicious information. There's no reason to go thinking that all suspect reporting is the product of bad actors. But it does happen. In Russia, pro-Kremlin bloggers post surreptitiously on behalf of the government, and China employs a "Fifty Cent Army" that gets paid per pro-Beijing blog post. The time has probably come for a more robust, voluntary, and spirited conversation about how, as individuals, we make sense of what we see online. It has to be a deeper conversation than the easy assumption that the network will always act as a filter.

  5. While we're having tough conversations, it's worth asking: are we focusing too much energy where we as citizens don't have all that much agency? We saw an immense desire to help the people of Iran in some way, to express our solidarity with a people standing up to a government -- from changing our Twitter icons green to launching distributed denial of service attacks on Iranian servers to setting up Internet proxies for Iranians to use. We didn't spend all that much time differentiating between the utility of those approaches. The attitude seemed to be "if we can do, we should do." Closer to home for those of us in the U.S., at the same time so much attention was being paid to Iran, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a 1,200 page bill that represents some of the most sweeping change in U.S. energy and environmental policy in a generation. It's a bill that could fundamentally shifting the United States' relationship to oil and, potentially, the Middle East -- and, to put a point on my point, Iran. Alas, it was up for debate in Congress not only in the middle of what was happening in Iran but also at just about the time Michael Jackson died. We could have been citizen lobbying on that bill. Are we occupying ourselves with actions that make us feel good, at the expense of creating concrete change closer to home?

  6. The flip side of that is this: One of the most striking outcomes of the focus on Iran has been that social media kept alive an interest in world affairs probably longer than it would otherwise have gone on. It's probably fair to say that a month ago many of us would have been hard pressed to name one of the candidates in the Iranian presidential election, other than the sitting president. Now the name "Moussavi" rolls off the tongue. For me personally, the change was particularly obvious when it comes to the Iranian diaspora, and in particular Iranian Americans friends. I found myself talking about Iran with friends with Persian backgrounds, and having conversations about the relationship between Iran and the U.S. and Iranians and Americans that we had never had before. Some of those conversations started from, "Hey, did you see Google Translate now includes Farsi?" and then turned into broader conversations about the politics of the place.

  7. Arguably, there was an assumption that because this was a popular uprising where candidates were using Facebook and supporters were using Twitter, it was necessarily a progressive one.  The images of thousands of people gathering in the streets give rise to feelings of solidarity, but Iran's own history of the '79 overthrow of a western-looking and modernizing government and the creation of an Islamic Republic is one of history's best case examples that popular, people-driven movements aren't always in line with ideas about more open, more inclusive, and more distributed social, political, and cultural life. [Ed. note -- this is the item on the list I've been most conflicted over since I wrote it.]

  8. Iran was a demonstration that connecting people to the Internet and developing a vibrant digital culture is a political act. Iran has long had a vibrant blogosphere. We saw from the fluid way in which reports and news and commentary jumped from Twitter to Flickr to YouTube to blogs to Persian-language social networks that they are good at this stuff. It came in handy when it came time to protest their government. That's why the Obama Administration's freeing of telecom companies to do business in Cuba is such an important first step, and why the U.S.'s development work around the world -- setting up mobile networks, laying broadband, sponsoring mobile health projects -- bleeds into our diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world. Technology, in other words, isn't neutral, and it's very often political.

  9. There was an alternative story that could be told about technology and Iran, and that was how bad social media is for at organizing anti-government protests, because networks can so easily be shut down. The Iranian government shut down cell phone network in the days before the election. And as the uprising heated up, they throttled Internet traffic. You could make the case that just as accurate a story in Iran is that network-based political organizing has a fatal flaw: networks have choke points that revolutionaries distributing pamphlets or riding around on horseback yelling "the Redcoats are coming!" just don't have.

  10. Finally, Pete Hoekstra was right. Rep. Hoekstra, you might remember, was the Congressperson (R-MI) who posted on Twitter that "Iranian twitter activity similar to what we did in House last year when Republicans were shut down in the House." No doubt, it was an awkward way of saying making his point. But he did have a point that so many politicians miss: being able to connect with other people to share your thinking and organize support behind your mission has real political power -- and it has to be protected, as a political value. I'll wrap by making the controversial statement that, instead of being turned into a meme, Pete Hoekstra should be celebrated as a forward-thinking leader. 

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