To learn more about the role that social media played in the 2009 protests in Iran, I recently spoke with a Yale University student who is originally from Iran and has relatives who were involved in the 2009 protests. Neyaz is a senior at Yale who was born and raised in Iran and immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was twelve years old. Most of her family still lives in Iran, and many of her relatives were actively involved in the 2009 protests that occurred after opposition leaders and democratic reform-minded citizens took to the streets by the thousands to protest alleged electoral fraud in that nation’s presidential elections.
Neyaz and I spoke about the role that social media played in the 2009 protest movement in Iran. She also weighed in on whether social media, on balance, helps or hinders pro-democracy reform movements in the Middle East. And we also spoke about what pro-democracy reformers in Iran today might learn from the current revolutions occurring in Egypt, in Tunisia, and elsewhere in the region.
The text of my interview with Neyaz can be found below. In sum, Neyaz believes that social media played an important role in the 2009 Iranian protests, but could not alone facilitate the creation of a reform-minded Iranian government. Indeed, Neyaz seems to feel that, no matter how effective social media is at organizing activists or disseminating information about protests, making more Iranians feel a true sense of hope that a regime change can and will occur with enough work is the more important element necessary to facilitate a democratic revolution in Iran.
Do you think Neyaz is right? Is social media only useful in sparking revolution provided that the people of a nation already believe it can happen? Or, are social media platforms powerful enough in their own rites to foment revolution in spite of the obstacles? Or, would we be perhaps creating a false dichotomy in attempting to determine which of these factors is most important in order for revolutions to occur in today’s world? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these themes and/or your thoughts about Neyaz’s responses to my questions in general.
Andrew: What role do you think social media played in the 2009 protests in Iran?
Neyaz: It played a huge, huge role. Not only because it provided a means to get the crowds together, but also because it helped with getting the information about the protests out of Iran. There’s a lot of censorship in Iran. Facebook was banned for a long time and still is, except that the youth there are Internet-savvy. People use proxies to get through. My cousins actually participated in the protests, and at some point during the protests, the government began more strictly monitoring Skype, which made it difficult to keep in touch with them through Skype. But by using proxies people were still able to communicate with each other during the protests. Twitter and people video-recording the protests and sending it to YouTube also showed people abroad what has happening in a very real way, which is what made it such a big deal.
Andrew: In terms of conveying information about the protests, what specific new media or social media platforms were utilized by the Iranian protesters?
Neyaz: There were many platforms used but YouTube was a big help in spreading information both to other protesters in Iran and to people outside of Iran. With the death of Neda Agha-Soltan for example, YouTube played a role in spreading word of her death, which served as a rallying cry among the protesters. She was just a bystander, and a government thug had killed her. There’s strict gun control in Iran and the protesters were unarmed so it was clear that the thug was from the government. Hearing about her death through YouTube especially rallied the protesters and brought the world’s attention to what happened in 2009 in Iran.
Andrew: Many argue that the pro-democracy protests in Iran in 2009 would have been more successful had social media tools been used more effectively. Do you believe this is true?
Neyaz: I actually don’t think that’s true. I feel like people really did all they could in terms of getting information about the protests out of Iran. Iran in 2009 was more like the current situation in Libya, where the government is the government. In Egypt this year, there was Mubarak, who was already being isolated anyway and so the army was able to take over and people celebrated that as a result. In Iran, there is a lot less of a separation between the military and the government. But in 2009, protesters in Iran finally saw a chance to try to get rid of the current government and put the reformists in power.
So, in 2009, a few weeks before the election, Moussavi began to come out more officially to complain about Ahmadinejad, which was big because you usually don’t complain about the country’s leaders. But once he did, others began to follow. Which is what made the election itself so suspicious. And what made so many people start to protest. And social media definitely helped facilitate the protests and it helped to bring information about the election and the protests to places outside of Iran.
Andrew: Many individuals are coming to view the use of new media and/or social media platforms as the best way that many people can support burgeoning pro-democratic movements occurring in countries like Iran. Others, however, believe that online engagement encourages “slacktivism” – armchair activism that gives people a false sense of accomplishment that does little to tangibly support pro-democracy protest movements. What are your thoughts about this debate? On balance, do you think social media and new media technology have helped or hindered pro-democratic reform movements in Iran?
Neyaz: For Iran, I think it was a net-plus. It was a huge help with organizing people and letting them know what has happening and where. But there wasn’t a strong enough leader for the protesters at the time, and people did not have enough hope in the success of the protests, which I would say were the biggest problems for the protesters in Iran back in 2009.
This problem of slacktivism is somewhat of a problem among Iranians abroad, but there’s really only so much Iranians abroad can do to help protest movements inside Iran. We shouldn’t forget, also, that it’s also really difficult for the people inside Iran too – how many people would risk so much that they have to go in protest? Overall, not that many people – many people inside Iran were really worried about their futures and what might happen to them or their families if they got too involved with any protest movement against the government. So it’s not as easy as it might sound to get directly involved in protests in Iran. But sure, there were slacktivists in the 2009 movement in Iran like there are, I suppose, in any protest movement involving social media.
Andrew: As you mentioned, there are still people out there today in Iran today protesting and trying to change their government. What, if anything, can these people in Iran learn from the current revolutions and protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East that might help them more effectively pursue democratic reforms in Iran going forward?
Neyaz: I would say the biggest thing to learn from these current revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere might be that if people do not really believe in the possibility of government change, then they won’t go out to the streets to fight for that change, no matter how much they dislike the government. Even my cousins for instance – and they are politically active and don’t like the Iranian government – even they don’t go out that often because again protesters risk so much by going out and protesting in Iran. You could lose your job, or even go to jail if the wrong people see you at the protests. And it’s not clear to a lot of people that the risk is worth it, that taking the risk will make a difference.
In Iran in 2009, people began to see – for the first time in a while, anyway – that things might really be able to change in Iran. That democratic reforms could really happen. But Iranians also saw in 2009 that the hard-liners controlling the government in Iran will stop at nothing to keep power. They also realized that, unlike what is happening in Libya right now, it would be really unlikely that foreign intervention would occur.
I personally don’t think the regime will last, and many people inside of Iran don’t think it will last – it’s brought the Iranian economy down, Ahmadinejad has embarrassed Iranians on the global stage, and many Iranians have also become disillusioned about religion and government being brought together – there are a growing number of atheists in our generation in Iran for instance. So all of these forces are in Iran right now that could support democratic revolution.
But getting democracy also takes a long time and a lot of effort. And even the work of social media alone can’t bring democracy to Iran. A whole lot more people need to feel that their involvement will make a difference in bringing democratic reforms to Iran. Social media will help – what social media does is spread information really fast to a lot of people, including those in the protests, including other people in the country, and including people outside of the country not connected to the protesters at all. But social media won’t change corruption, oppressive leaders or difficult situations on the ground, and certainly can’t by itself bring about change.