What happens when the break-neck pace of the Internet age collides with the publicity demands of the political arena? In the race to get the juicier squeeze, news and media outlets often forego thorough fact checks in order to keep up with the round-the-clock coverage offered by the cyber world. Result? The dissemination of misinformation at a never-before seen pace.
So how exactly does this relate to the Middle East, some might ask?
This week, I was privileged enough to discuss the issue of New Media in Iran with the highly controversial Middle East analyst and Yale Professor, Hillary Mann Leverett. Former Director for Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council, Professor Leverett is now Chief Executive Officer of STRATEGA, a political risk consulting firm. She is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. During our discussion, Professor Leverett spoke to me about the role of social media in Iran during the 2009 presidential elections, but refreshingly not from the conventional viewpoint of the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution.’ According to Leverett, the Iranian election protests were remarkable for their ability to elucidate the dangers of new-age media, in particular, the way in which the demand for speed and brevity has led to a decline in the standards of journalistic practice.
Naturally, the hyper-speed of the Internet places limitations on the amount of time we can spend fact checking, thus culminating in the decline of expected reporting standards. With information being disseminated onto the online circuit at real-time, media institutions race to be the first to discover the facts, to get the pictures and to tell the story. Leverett believes that this drop in standards is particularly symptomatic of reporting on Iran and the Middle East more generally, because reporting is often cloaked by an ulterior political motive, “the lust for regime-change.” Professor Leverett expressed a concern for the disconcerting trend in Western media to lower the benchmark of journalistic integrity when reporting on stories in the Middle East so as to cater to the administration’s political agenda of destabilizing the Islamic regime. This reality is most clearly exemplified through the case study of Neda Soltani, the woman victimized by the two colliding worlds of politics and social media. This incredible tale was first reported on by Cameron Abadi, but analyzed in depth by Leverett who perceives this case of mistaken identity as evidence for America’s use of media as a “soft strategy for regime change”. Below I have summarized the incident:
On the evening of June 20th 2009, 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan was shot without warning as she stood and watched the protests on a street corner in Tehran by a Basiji member who fired from the rooftop of a building nearby. Her gruesome death – caught on video camera and posted on YouTube – galvanized international public opinion against the Iranian regime and came to symbolize martyrdom in the face of government brutality. Here is a link to the footage. WARNING: the content of this video may be disturbing to viewers.
It was following the death of Agha-Soltan that social media first came to play a crucial role in Iran. Twitter is often cited as the defining tool in mobilizing revolutionary support during the election protests of 2009. Though Leverett acknowledges the medium’s importance in exposing a network of likeminded activists, with fewer than 1000 Iranians on Twitter at the time of the protests it can be concluded that its significance has been extremely exaggerated in Western media reports.
The role of Facebook in 2009 on the other hand is often overlooked. In the immediate aftermath of the video’s release, Facebook pages dedicated to the ‘Angel of Iran’ – the martyr of the rigged Iranian election – made their way onto the online circuit. Working with only an obscured name heard from a choppy YouTube video, media outlets and Facebook activists hastily rushed to disclose more information about the woman whose death had gone viral on the Internet. In the hype and hysteria of the released footage, the name Agha-Soltan first dropped the hyphen and then Agha. Following her death, The Guardian published a misleading headline referring to ‘Neda Soltan’s’ family. Indeed, Neda’s surname became so distorted that is eventually picked up an ‘i’ and became Soltani in the hours immediately following her shooting. Conveniently, Neda Soltani was a young, attractive woman with an existing Facebook page. Activists jumped at the opportunity to make this fresh-faced woman, adorned in an innocent, floral headscarf the face of the Green Movement. She was pretty and she was young, so her image easily inspired sympathy and activism. There was one small problem however…Neda Soltani was very much alive.
The deficiency of fact checking in the blogosphere and the speed with which misinformation can travel was exemplified in Iran during the 2009 election protests. Network after network, from CNN to BBC picked up the image of Neda Soltani and used it to illustrate their stories. In the absence of free journalistic access to Iran, Facebook activists served as the primary source of information for mainstream media. In order to correct the error that had been made by Western media organizations, the living Neda reached out to the Voice of America, a US-backed satellite network that had unashamedly used her image to antagonize a disgruntled Iranian population. She sent them photos of herself in order to validate her claims and remit herself.
What ensued however was a disturbing insight into the world of media ethics. Rather than disseminating the truth, V.O.A stamped the images as ‘never-before seen’ photos of the protestor. Confused for Neda Agha-Soltan, Neda Soltani was forced to become a political refugee and her identity was all but stripped away from her. The mistaken images spread virally through blogs and other social networking sites at lightening pace and within three days, the living Neda Soltani and not the deceased Neda Agha-Soltan had come to symbolize the Green Movement. It wasn’t until June 23, three days after incessant coverage of the Iranian protests, that a real photo of Neda Agha-Soltan was released by her parents. Even more shockingly, it was not until July 3, over ten days after the shooting, that BBC announced an on-air correction of their colossal error.
I spoke to Professor Leverett about what this incident revealed about the hyper-speed of the Internet age. More significantly, we spoke about what this incident revealed about the West’s willingness to compromise standards of ethical practice when dealing with nations like Iran in the name of a political agenda.
This story bares several important truths about the nature of the New Media and the danger of dependence on this source of information in the absence of effective fact-checking strategies and quick, efficient responses to errors in reporting. What we witnessed during the 2009 protests was the “willingness to put aside basic practices of responsible journalism when dealing with Iran” in order to tell a “sexier story”. According to Leverett, the Obama administration’s use of media and broadcasting into Iran is a fundamental pillar in their “soft strategy for regime change.” The US government tacitly supports Iran’s democratic movements through the sponsorship of the New Media. For example, through funding the increased hours of satellite television and radio in Persian as well as providing software to help Iranians escape their government’s efforts to block internet use in the hope that increased exposure to Western media may allow the Iranian people to ‘see the truth’ and revolt against their government.
So what now? Despite the wave of revolts that have swept through the Middle East over the past several months, beginning first with Tunisia, extending to Egypt, and continuing through Bahrain, and now Libya, America’s greatest strategic concern, Iran, remains untouched by the domino effect. When Mubarak stepped down from office, Obama officials undoubtedly turned to Iran with a glimmer of hope that protest would be reignited and that regime change could still be a possibility. This fantasy however has yet to become a reality. Having lost an ally in the fall of the Mubarak regime, the US finds itself in an increasingly desperate situation in the Middle East when dealing with the rise of Iran as a regional power. President Ahmadinejad has been one of the most vociferous supporters of the Middle East revolutions and, as argued by Leverett, his nation has much to gain from the seismic changes taking place in the region. Though the future of the Middle East remains unclear, one thing is certain…with an incredibly tech-literate population, three-quarter of whom are under the age of 30, the New Media will play a pivotal role in Iran’s impending rise to power.