The most talked-about aspect of the current situation in Iran, is Twitter. In the past weeks Twitter has reportedly provided opportunities for Iranian protesters to send out information during that government's refusal to allow (mostly Western) journalists to report on the aftermath of the (suspect) re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. So the hottest tweet is possibly, ironically, about Twitter itself. There are many excited by it: Twitter = Democracy? However, thankfully, there are also those who believe moderation and caution are called for before proclaiming that social media promote democracy. Social media, for the most part, help mobilize large numbers of people. Democracy is a whole other gig.
What sticks with me as I follow the Iran story is the connection between life on- and off-line. An online presence easily obfuscates offline realities. The delicious tension between the two characterizes so much of the developing world. In that vein, Iranian realpolitik is being distorted by online noise. And obviously, the urban, the educated, the middle class, youth, and those on the right side of the digital divide are tweeting, everybody else is rallying around Ahmedinejad.
As far as Twitter in Iran goes (and I say this specifically with reference to Iran), what tends to get missed is the reality of the Offline Iran. Iranian people have always had a strong sense of voice. Iran may be enriching its Uranium and have an un-likeable leader, but it is not Dubai or Saudi Arabia. Iran is an ancient civilization that has reinvented itself so many times over; it has seen cataclysmic change, war, repression, purging, and yet it's people continue to be vibrant, proud and cosmopolitan. It has always fascinated me that over the past three decades of upheaval and repression, Iran produced some of the most edgy, daring and truly stellar cinema, and notably by women filmmakers. Iranian cinema appears refined, cultured and highly self-aware. So it is not really like Twitter has suddenly given Iranians a voice.
I think it's interesting that the protests in Iran are immediately read as 'repressed people trying to speak out', prompting recent (neocon) American calls for (rapidly greying) President Obama to say something in support of Iranian people. What if they are angry young mobs who want a change in leadership and are irritated that their guy didn't win? And what’s new about electoral irregularities? Remember Florida?
But while Ahmedinejad is quite possibly a bellicose pig, and as-yet-unknown-manner-of-skulduggery goes on within and through the Guardian Council, Mir Hossein Moussavi's record of being a violent, ruthless actor in the 1979 revolution, responsible for routinely ordering the 'removal' of dissidents doesn't get as much press. He seems to be quite enjoying the mantle of ‘reformer’ thrown upon him, and now urges his supporters to exercise their right to protest. Rrrrigght.... Ironically, many of Moussavi's supporters were too young (or possibly weren't even born at the time) to have known of him in his infamous stint as Prime Minister. So, much of the hype around Iran and Twitter seems like a convenient way to align 'the West' against Ahmedinejad, as if Moussavi was some brave, new hope for the country.
In the end we all seem to know a lot more about the Twitter revolution than Iranian ones. As Bill Maher said the other day, 'Twitter didn't save Iran, Iran saved Twitter.'
By Maya Indira Ganesh
June 22, 2009