How the Iranian blogosphere fights back

I’ve written extensively over the years about Iranian web censorship.

My following piece was commissioned by BBC Persian on the role of the web in Iran’s current political troubles (yes, it’s in Farsi).

Here’s the English version:

The face of murdered Iranian woman Neda Agha Soltan by a sniper’s bullet echoed around the world. Murdered in June 2009 during the upheaval after the disputed presidential election that saw a new term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the vast majority of iconic images seen outside the Islamic Republic were shot by citizens on mobile phones or digital cameras. They were raw, brutal, confused and powerful. Their aim was to document events and let historians and journalists find order in the chaos.

A society was challenged in a way that rocked the foundations of the state.

Neda’s boyfriend, Caspian Makan, who fled the country soon after her death, told the Guardian in November 2009 that Neda’s death forced him to become political and speak out against the regime. “As I left Tehran”, he said, “I was looking around at the good people of Iran, who are kind and patient. They looked so weighed down.”

This is exactly the sentiment I found in Iran during my visit there in 2007 during research for my book, The Blogging Revolution. I spoke to countless bloggers, editors and dissidents to determine the effect of the internet on civil society. It was both profound and frustrating. The last years have undoubtedly seen a growth in countless websites dedicated to the discussion of once-hidden subjects, from gay emancipation to dating. But despite the often-liberating nature of the technology, nobody talked about using the web alone to bring democracy.

Besides, many Iranians don’t use the internet and have other issues on their minds, such as regular work and decent housing. The liberal Iranian elite largely despises Ahmadinejad’s conservative brand of Shia doctrine and wishes for change but the President has large swatches of support across the country, especially in the poorer regions. Far too many Western journalists visit Tehran and only thrive in the northern parts of the city, believing that more tolerant views towards gender and politics reflect the will of the entire nation.

After an initially slow acknowledgement of the power of the web to shape public opinion, the conservative clerics appropriated the medium with ruthless efficiency. Numerous reports have emerged over the last months of an Iranian Cyber Army hacking numerous websites critical of the mullahs and threatening stronger action. One message read: “U.S.A. Think They Controlling And Managing Internet By Their Access, But They Don’t, We Control And Manage Internet By Our Power.”

A fundamental misreading of last year’s public protests in Iran led many in the West to conclude that a Twitter Revolution was brewing and would inevitably bring down the state. A journalist from the Atlantic visited the holy city of Qom a few months after the June uprising and found little evidence of tension. In fact, he found “the happy docility of a one-party state.”

This is not to diminish the undeniable resistance to authoritarian rule in the Islamic Republic. I found an impatience either expressed by leaving the country for better opportunities or venting anonymously on blogs and online forums. There was fear of being caught by authorities but also a growing bravery in flouting the “red lines” in society. Criticism of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was largely impossible – though the last months have seen public protests with shouts of “Death to the Dictator” – but his infallibility was no longer sacred.

The New York Times tried to capture the mood on the streets during the June 2009 uprising. Reluctant to call events the Twitter Revolution – a hesitancy unwisely not shown by countless Western news networks, including many interviewers who wanted me to explain why Twitter was about to bring down the mullahs – the paper offered six lessons of the technology. “Twitter is self-correcting but a misleading gauge”, it wrote. It went on: “Twitter is a very poor tool for judging popular sentiment in Iran and trying to assess who won the presidential election.” The most tech-savvy web users were largely critical of Ahmadinejad and used Twitter to mobilise citizens on the streets. This didn’t mean the majority of the population backed these moves.

Too much of the Western press coverage of Iran reflects the projected wishes of the American political elite, namely “regime change” or at least a radical shift in policy. The nuclear enrichment issue hangs over virtually every discussion with Iran. Bloggers both inside and outside the country try to understand the seemingly impenetrable moves of Ahmadinejad and the mullahs. But the prospect of tighter sanctions against Tehran will likely only result in greater internal repression.

The most appropriate ways to support movements against the regime, according to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, is to back the US State Department’s request for issuing a general license that “would authorise downloads of free mass-market software by companies such as Microsoft and Google to Iran necessary for the exchange of personal communications and/or sharing of information over the internet such as instant messaging, chat and email and social networking.” How many Iranians trust the interests of the State Department is another question entirely.

Harvard University’s Ethan Zuckerman argues that the US government doesn’t fully the ramifications of potentially providing a proxy service for users in, say, Iran or China, to circumvent all censored content. Furthermore, domestically blocked content is not included in this proposed system, the material likely to be used by most web surfers.

But the key question remains: how central is the internet in Iran to challenging the Ahmadinejad regime? Web commentator Evgeny Morozov wrote in Prospect in January that it was unwise to see online social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others) as central to the so-called Green Revolution. He argued that the Iranian government “has not only survived but has in fact become even more authoritarian”, utilising the same tools of the protestors to entrap and monitor their every move. “What do we really gain”, he posed, “if the ability to organise protests is matched (and perhaps even dwarfed) by the ability to provoke, identity and arrest the protestors?”

The Wall Street Journal outlined in December 2009 the myriad of ways that Iran was now monitoring dissenters outside its borders and interrogated some who arrived in Tehran and demanded Facebook accounts be examined at the Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Turning the tools of revolution on the revolutionaries.

The ascendency of the Revolutionary Guard to a ruling position is ominous for the foreseeable future in the country. The simple truth is that brutal regimes can block the use of text messages, email (Google’s Gmail was recently censored) and imprison, torture and kill opponents. There is little dissidents can do in the short-term to counter these overwhelming factors, as we have seen in Burma and China.

I’ve heard from various sources that many once-active bloggers have gone underground for fear of arrest. The online voices from Iran we are reading today are therefore either strongly backing Ahmadinejad or the forces against him but the latter are at a distinct disadvantage without the apparatus of the state behind them. But they have achieved hugely through people power and innovative use of online tools.

Iran’s future will not be written in London or Washington. We should be cautious of any Western player claiming to know what the Iranian people want. Exaggerating the influence of the internet on Iranian society is dangerous but so is excluding its potentially liberating effect.

I remember speaking to many Iranians in the country who couldn’t imagine life without the ability to communicate with friends, lovers and students and share stories that were once only whispered. Predicting the demise of the Islamic Republic is a fool’s game. But we can listen to the thoughts and requests of Iranians who long for a brighter future, both those online and the millions of others who dream of the day when their country’s poverty is alleviated.