The Iranian Blogosphere Through The Looking Glass

Compared to other countries in the Middle East, the Iranian people have a high level of political maturity and an organized popular movement for democratic socio-political change. So why do Iranians continue to revolt on the blogosphere and the streets of Tehran?

2009 was a tumultuous years for blogging in various parts of the world, but I don't think anyone felt the impact as much as those who were residents or ex-pats of Iran. While US citizens can empathize with those who protested last June against the Iranian elections, it's difficult to understand the full import of what life must be like when trying to communicate to fellow nationals inside and outside of that country.

To gain greater insight into the Iranian blogosphere, one needs to review  the statistics, the historical context and the current geo-political status of Iran today.

By the numbers

As of September 2009, according to InternetWorldStats, Iran had 48.5% Internet penetration (the second highest percentage in the Middle East behind Israel at 72.8%). In contrast, approximately 74.1% percent of Americans have Internet access, where a country like Yemen is one of the lowest in the Middle East hovering around 1.6%.

The functional expansion of Persian blogs is a reaction to social restrictions imposed by a totalitarian theocratic regime that even after 30 years has not been able to force its ideal social order upon the Iranian society in its entirety.

Blogs are flexible communications and social tools that can be controlled by authors. In Iran,  they are preferably used by the younger generation to replace certain missing or dysfunctional social institutions in Iranian society.

Communication via blogs is a phenomenon that occurred in the first decade of the new millennium and varies in total numbers by country. An Internet survey conducted by Blogherald in 2005 indicated that the total number of blogs worldwide was estimated at 100 million - and out of that number 700,000 were registered as Persian blogs (both within and outside Iran).

So at first glance, by the numbers, Iran appears as one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East. With approximately 60,000 blogs and 20 million people connected to the Internet, the Iranian cyberworld appears dynamic. However the strong arm of the existing regime has control as to what can be accessed and the government filters out content they don't want the citizenry to see. 

Filters and Censorship

The Iranian government censors the Internet. In addition to blocking access to specific Web sites, it also bans the search of certain keywords. Beyond pornographic Web sites, the main targets of the Iranian authorities is political /social blogs and Web sites which deprives many from free expression. The Iranian government does not have well-defined filtering policies as it changes the rule book often based on the degree of unrest at the time.

Suffice to say, this type of error message is viewed frequently by Iranian citizens.

According to a Global Voices' online report, Iranian officials in 2006 noted 10 million websites and blogs that had been filtered and in 2009, 5 million had been blocked.

Remember McCarthy

Similar to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that we experienced in the States, in May 2007, the state-run newspaper Kayhan issued a defamatory article series against a number of well-known intellectuals, artists and film makers, who mostly reside and work in Iran. In these articles, the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, the photographer Mariam Zandi, the editor Ali Dehbashi, the director of the Tehran House of Artists Behrooz Gharibpoor, the former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art Alireza Sami’-Azar and others were accused of secretly preparing a “velvet revolution” in order to “softly overthrow” the Islamic Republic.

Persian news websites such as BBC Persian, AmirKabir (a student news publication) and Balatarin, a popular citizen media portal have been filtered along with We4change, a women's activist blog/website.

Dr Nima MinaDr Nima MinaJust two years ago, in a research analysis filed by Dr. Nima Mina, titled 'Blogs,Cyber-Literature and Virtual Culture,' he wrote, "as the adversarial relationship between the Islamic regime (beginning with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency in the summer of 2005) and the international community becomes more antagonistic, the Iranian people are increasingly losing their voice and are deprived of their right of self-determination." Mina is an academic staff member at the University of London and his research includes the impact of new media on the progress of the Iranian civil society.

"The Iranian people are treated as identical with the dictatorial regime which has, many would argue, taken them hostage for the past 28 years. They are now in danger of becoming the real losers of a conflict provoked by the regime’s political and ideological agenda, which is being carried out without the people’s consent and against their interest," adds Mina.

In June 2007, all Iranian bloggers were ordered to register their blogs through a virtual government office. In the registration process, bloggers who wrote under a pseudonym had to disclose their real identity. The judiciary’s registration directive triggered a wide civil resistance action by non-conformist bloggers. Even some bloggers who published under their own names and lived inside the country participated in the resistance.

Iranian Election Protests in June

Mahmoud AhmadinejadMahmoud AhmadinejadShortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in June 2005, there were clear indications of a conservative campaign for a stronger centralization of state power over the media. During the first two years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, more than 100 newspapers and other periodicals were banned.

At the time, according to the reformist activist Mohammad Javad Haqshenas, only 3 % of all press outlets are under the control of the critics of the government, whereas 70 % are run by active supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Despite the government crackdown, Iran's social network managed to penetrate the outside world. While the Iranian government continued to filter and censor the Internet, social applications like Twitter that are not tied to a particular Web site became the digital megaphone that amplified the unrest in the country. 

Even when the government was able to restrict some access to the microblogging site, users were still able to utilize Twitter through other services, such as Twitterfall, where the Iranian government had a much more difficult time controlling. Another means to bypass the government's intervention was re-routing to proxy servers. These servers employ IP addresses that are not on the government's forbidden list - which in turn allows the servers to redirect the information to other Web sites, even those on the government's restricted list.

Shut down the Internet?

Indeed, the only means that the government could have used to completely stop the flow of information during the Iranian Election protests was to ban any and all access to the Internet. This was a step the government never took. Doing so might have risked shutting down vital government and economic services as well, and they wisely chose not to cut off their nose to spite the face.

The Iranian Blogfather

According to Jahan News website, Iranian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan (aka Hoder), a prolific blogger often described as the godfather of the Iranian blogosphere, was arrested In Tehran in 2008. The Canadian-Iranian citizen had been credited with igniting a Web-based "revolution" earlier in the decade, in which Iranians began criticizing the regime by blogging, texting and using social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.

He has stirred controversy in both the US and Iran,  calling for reform and  criticizing the regime. At other times however, he has praised Ahmadinejad, criticized the US, and stated that he would not hesitate to fight for Iran if the US ever attacked. Now, the 35-year-old Derakhshan has been accused of giving up names to the Iranian government of others involved in anti-government organizing. To date, it is not been ascertained if Derakhshan is being used as a pawn or coerced to testify in support of the government.

Mobilizing the Diaspora

In 2006, the Iranian diaspora or ex-pats were estimated to be between 2 to 4 million people around the world. According to the U.S.-based Migration Policy Institute, Iran's emigrant population is "extremely heterogeneous with respect to ethnicity, religion, social status, language, gender, political affiliation, education, legal status, and timing and motivation for departure (ranging from political to sociocultural to economic)." The largest concentration of Iranians outside of Iran, the report finds, "reside in the United States, followed by Canada, Germany, Sweden, and Israel.

Organizing the Activists

Social networking outside of Iran was key to the explosive reliance on these tools. With restricted access, slow Internet service, and limited knowledge of events inside the country, Iranians have turned to activists outside the country to help facilitate the transfer of information.

Read my previous blog, 'Iranian Activist Fights With Top Social Media Tool Of The Decade,' pertaining to the opposition activist Mohsen Sazegara living the States in Virginia using YouTube as his prime social media weapon of choice.

The Social Networking Rules Work

Here Comes Everybody by Clay ShirkyHere Comes Everybody by Clay ShirkyIn his seminal book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky outlines the principles for effective adoption of social-networking tools. Shirky's rules address the nature of the technology, the structure of the social interaction, and the value assigned to social-networking transactions.

    * Technologies should be well established. As Shirky points out, "new tools are not always better. New tools, in fact, start with a huge social disadvantage, which is that most people don't use them, and whenever you have a limited pool from which potential members can be drawn, you limit the social effects." The preference in social networking is to adopt proven and widely available software and systems.

    * Systems should seem simple. Shirky notes as an example that, "the basic bargain Wikipedia offers is that you can edit anyone else's writings and anyone else can edit yours." Simple rules and simple operational routines are the hallmark of widespread adoption of social-networking tools.

    * There has to be something in it for the user. "Social tools don't create new motivations so much as amplify existing ones," says Shirky. Users are drawn to social networks because they believe participation will bring them a benefit that they want.

The Iranian case appears to validate Shirky's rule set. Even Twitter, among the newest of the social-networking tools widely used during the protests is two years old. Additionally, Twitter is among the simplest of online communities to participate in. Twitter and other social-networking sites were popular in Iran because they provided something people wanted--a "space" where they could share ideas and protest against the ills of state with people inside the country and around the world.

2010 and Beyond

Where do Iranian bloggers, citizen journalists and ex-pats go from here? We are inspired by their noble cause and their bravery in the face of what appears to be insurmountable odds. The government is trying hard to keep the Iranian people and the world at large from learning the full extent of its abuses. Foreign correspondents have largely been barred from the country and native journalists risk their lives daily by just doing their jobs. Many are forced into exile leaving a country they love. One can only guess what fate awaits protesters who remain behind.

While the blogosphere continues to be robust and the social networking sites of Twitter and Evgeny MorozovEvgeny MorozovFacebook prove a viable resource for communicating dissent to global audiences, this is only one side of the coin. The blogosphere should also be examined as to how it benetis the the Iranian government as well.

In a blog titled, 'Iran's propaganda hits the Spinternet,' by Evgeny Morozov, his view through the looking glass sheds some additional light. He wisely cautions, that while "making our way through billions of Twitter and Facebook updates, we should not lose sight of one critical feature of the digital age - the wealth of information trails generated by digital activists has also provided authoritarian governments with better means to identify and squash emerging threats to their hegemony."  As with every opposing faction, whether it is a full-blown war or protests on the streets of Tehran,  while the tools can amplify the message, sometimes it's not the volume that's necessary if it displaces the voice of reason.