Iran and social media

No one can say how all this will turn out, but I’m an optimist. I think social media can change the world, that connecting together large populations renders dictatorial government nearly impossible. Once everyone’s hooked up it will become clear that the sane outnumber the mad. I think it’s reasonable to believe that Twitter, or something like it, will produce a revolution or three.

But the network in Iran isn’t very big. I confess I am not hopeful in the current circumstance. Yesterday the Iranian government brought the question to arms. What’s making it past the censorship is admittedly patchy, but I’ve seen no suggestion that there exists any opposition sufficiently well-organized or equipped to accept the challenge. Mr. Mousavi is not channeling Patrick Henry.

It’s hard to gauge Twitter’s role in all this. The medium lends itself to blasts and anecdotal reporting. Some of the former contain good information, like instructions for dealing with tear gas and the addresses of embassies accepting injured protestors, this because, it is being tweeted, Basij militia are at the hospitals, laying in wait for the wounded. Grimly fascinating stuff for the audience–us–but it’s not clear to me that the opposition is finding Twitter a useful organizational tool. They came out yesterday, but not in huge numbers, fewer than 5,000 in Tehran, and it sounds as if the police and paramilitaries pushed them aside with brutal ease.

Neda’s death is, instantly, an iconic image of the century.

And also proof the the government has drawn the sword, which might well prove sufficient to put a lid on the post-election unrest and save the regime. It is too soon to say.

Perhaps this isn’t revolution by Twitter, but the events of this weekend, like the recent events in Moldova, prove that the game has changed. Increased social connectivity will severely test institutional legitimacy all across the political spectrum, but nowhere more than in nations governed by illiberal regimes with ineffective parliaments. It isn’t hard to imagine what’s happening this weekend in Tehran happening in other countries, and the list isn’t especially short. We’ll be seeing a lot more of this. There will be other Nedas.

For stable democratic regimes blessed with an abundance of bandwidth and resources like GovLoop, the challenge is tapping into that same mass energy for irenic, constructive ends. Just imagine.

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Mark Boelte

There is no doubt that the presence of social media has affected what is happening in Iran. The shutdown of text messaging and web sites prove this. The regime in place knows for itself how media can change things as they used media (cassette tapes) to spread the word and foment their own revolution. The men on the Ruling Council are the ones that organized and accomplished it.

What remains to be seen is if the opposition can sustain the protests despite the willingness of the people in power to use deadly violence.