Digital Media and Iran's Green Movement: A Look Back with Cameran Ashraf

Regions: Iran

Issues: Elections, Freedom of opinion & expression

Tags: ahmadinejad, censorship, digital media, Elections, gerdab, Green Movement, mousavi, Protests, safety, seguridad, social media, twitter, video, web 2.0

December 7 was Student Day in Iran, a day when students traditionally commemorate the deaths of three Iranian students who were protesting the Shah in 1953. This year, the Student Day protests were especially poignant because they demonstrated that Iran's Green Movement is still very much alive. And, like the post-election protests in June, news about the demonstrations was delivered to the world via tools like Twitter and YouTube.

Online news organizations like Tehran Bureau and Enduring America, supported by a number of bloggers, such as the New York Times' Lede Blog and Citizentube, highlighted videos of the Student Day protests like those seen below in order to get the word out:

(If any Persian speakers out there could help translate what is being said in any of these videos please post in the comments section below - your help would be greatly appreciated.)

There has been much debate during the past few months over the role digital media has played in the Iranian election protests and Green Movement. A few weeks ago, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University sponsored a talk by Cameran Ashraf entitled, #iranelection: The digital media response to the 2009 Iranian election, which provided a great look at how the digital media landscape shaped (and continues to shape) the Green Movement. You can watch the entire talk for yourself below:

 

Ashraf Talk

 

Because media and information is so segmented between different regions, Ashraf notes, digital media and videos can be a particularly powerful tool for spreading information. Iran has 23-32 million internet users, putting it on par with Eastern Europe and making it something of an outlier in the Middle East, a region with relatively rates of internet access. To demonstrate the level of internet activity used during protests in Iran, Ashraf provides some anecdotal data from a protest that occured on September 18. Within 16 hours of the protest:

  • over 80 videos had been smuggled out of Iran

  • 300,000 people viewed the videos

  • 250,000 people downloaded the videos from inside Iran

The Government Response: Censorship and Surveillance

Of course, the internet in Iran is not so free. Reporters Without Borders lists Iran as one of its 12 "internet enemies", having blocked over 10 million websites deemed politically or socially offensive. When users try to access these blocked sites, they are invited to report to the authorities via e-mail in case the block is a mistake - a clever trick designed by the regime to create a database of potential dissidents, says Ashraf. In response to the protests that began in June, the Iranian government "virtually shut down the entire internet," reducing data transfer rates by 80%. During and after the protests, the average time to download a video on YouTube was over one hour (from the normal average time of 10 minutes). Opposition and foreign media websites were blocked, and restrictions were placed on file download sizes. Online monitoring was also stepped up, and threatening text messages were sent out by the regime. Ashraf was able to find part of one such text, which reads:

"Respected citizen, according to received information, you have been influenced by anti-security propaganda of foreign-backed media. If you attend any illegal gathering or contact media..."

The Iranian regime has demonstrated that it can be remarkably tech-savvy. It created a crowdsourcing website - www.gerdab.ir - used to identify protesters and dissidents. Pictures of protesters are posted on the site and users are offered rewards to identify them. Many of the pictures used on the site are taken from Iranian citizen media - videos and photos uploaded to YouTube and other sites - and are then often used against the very citizens who uploaded them. Red stamps reading "captured" are placed on the photos after an individual is arrested. As noted by an Iranian that has interned at WITNESS (whose name we will withhold for security reasons), the Gerdab pictures are also used to intimidate Iranians - "by representing protesters as guilty of crimes without any real determination of guilt, and by discouraging others from participating in future protests or uploading media online."

The Green Movement has responded with its own crowdsourcing site - www.gerdabesabz.blogspot.com - used to identify undercover government agents and members of the Basij. It's a great example of the cat and mouse game played online between governments and activists. However, there are ethical concerns with this endeavor, as it is unknown what could happen to those featured on either site.

The government also still relies on traditional repressive techniques simply adapted to the internet, as evidenced by the creation of a cyber crime unit to police the internet for dissident activity. The government has additionally created propaganda sites hosted in the United States and Canada, where there are better infrastructures to keep the sites running. Lastly, the regime has also adopted a nuanced approach to blocking access to mobile networks, blocking texting only in the area of a protest, for example, so that people in other areas of the country are kept unaware of the protest (and of any government action as well).

The Green Movement's Online Strategy: A "Hydra Approach"

Yet for all the regime's efforts, the Green Movement has maintained its strength and momentum. To quote Ashraf:

 

"The Green Movement's response, basically, has been to create a digital movement whose leader is itself, whose central organizing structure is viral, with ebbs and flows that adapt to the constantly changing and shifting digital and social landscape in post-election Iran."

The Green Movement has adopted what Ashraf calls a "hydra approach." Each individual within the Green Movement is a leader, which makes the regime's attempts to squash it akin to, in Bill Clinton's words, trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. The Green Movement is dependent upon Web sites, but it is not dependent upon any one Web site. Activists will set up a blog to advertise a protest, and when it is taken down, a new blog is put up. The Movement is also adept at bringing its online work to bear in the physical world. For example, stencils and flyers are created online and shared throughout "Blogistan", then printed out and used during protests.

International Support: Pluses and Minuses

The Green Movement also has considerable international support. Internet activists around the globe, notes Ashraf, helped Iranians circumvent the restrictions put in place by the Iranian regime. They also helped shame and force media attention with the #cnnfail hashtag on Twitter (more on hashtags here), in addition to providing a valuable resource for news organizations shut out from events on the ground. Perhaps most importantly, international support provided a safe avenue to get videos and images out of the country and hosted thousands of media files for the opposition.

But not all of the international support was helpful to Iranians. Ashraf notes that widespread distributed denial-of-service, or DDOS attacks intended to hurt government capabilities by targeting regime-affiliated Web sites, actually hurt the Green Movement by slowing down the internet in Iran even more than it already had been (a Google search for gerdab.ir, for example, still garners dozens of hits for web pages urging or directing DDOS attacks on the site). Cultural differences also hampered the effect of international support. Ashraf argues that in the U.S., one of many countries whose citizens provided online support for the Green Movement, activists and the media got "bored" because the revolution was not happening on "American time" (Iranians, Ashraf said, prefer to do things more slowly) - international digital activists can be fickle.

A Twitter Revolution? Not Quite

Much has been made in Western media about the impact of Twitter, but Ashraf, like many other commentators (see articles here and here), is skeptical about the impact of Twitter. One area in which Twitter, made a difference, however, was in communicated the continued support of the world to the Green Movement after the Western media stopped covering the events in Iran and began covering the death of Michael Jackson. It was also instrumental in getting news of torture out of Iran. Below are a few direct Tweets from Iran, some of which were used as sources by the media (all of which were later proven to be accurate):

"they hang ppls from roof in evin by hand & foot and beat 24/7 with electric cable - situ serious - these ppls need help"

"@ night in Evin nobody can sleep from sound of screaming.. Evin is full & ppls are 10 in 1 room"

"men in Evin is raped - some with glass bottle breaking in body - hospital sources say what they see is terrible"

But Ashraf argues that the impact of Twitter within Iran has been "grossly overstated". According to the Web Ecology Project, between June 7 and June 26, 2009, there were over 2 million tweets about the election in Iran, with about 480,000 users taking part. Of those users, Ashraf estimates only 12-50 were actually inside Iran. The real value of Twitter was in its ability to bring together activists around the globe in a "digital media and activism commons". This argument is echoed by Clay Shirky: "the most important tools during the Tehran protests were mobile phones, whether to send text messages, photos, or videos. Twitter, predominantly, was a gateway to western attention."

The ineffectiveness of Twitter within Iran is mirrored in some emerging academic studies on the role of information and communication technology in international affairs. Patrick Philippe Meier's analysis of the relationship between internet access and the frequency of protests under repressive regimes concludes that the relationship is insignificant.

What, then, are we to make of the role of digital media in promoting human rights? Clearly, both the repressors and the revolutionaries can artfully use the tools of Web 2.0 to augment their abilities to bring change offline (as discussed in my previous post). Some tools, like Twitter, might not be useful for some tasks, but are crucial for others. Video has clearly made a significant impact by documenting not only the abuses committed by the Iranian regime, but also the dedication of the Green Movement. Organizations like WITNESS can learn from the experiences of the Green Movement as they seek to use video and other digital media for advocacy purposes.

The battle for a free Iran is not yet over, as the Student Day protests have shown, but what is already clear is that while protests and demonstrations are the "meat" of the movement, many important parts of the fight have and will occur online - through Tweets, texts, and videos.



READ MORE

 

For more on the Iranian protests, check out these blog posts and videos on The Hub. To read more about the use of technology during conflicts and the impact of digital media on human rights, see these two reports:

New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks

Digital Media in Conflict-Prone Societies