Last week’s elections and ensuing chaos in Iran have highlighted a growing phenomenon to political activism in the Middle East: communicating through social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and You Tube. Many of the protests taking place in Tehran and smaller Iranian cities are being organized through “Tweets,” and significant footage shot by people on the streets is being posted on a variety of websites for the world to view. In response, the Iranian government is cracking down on journalists and internet sites. Hundreds of arrests have been made amongst politicians, activists and foreign journalists. Additionally, access to internet websites is being denied by the Iranian government in further attempts to suppress protests. Thus far, it appears as if these attempts have been moderately successful, but not entirely effective. According to a New York Times article, in addition to the media crackdown, there have been efforts by the Iranian government to thwart or misdirect protesters through their own “tweets” and blogging posts. In other words, the government seems to be attempting to fight fire with fire, instead of extinguishing the fire with water. While espousing propaganda designed to mislead citizens is hardly a new tactic, the fact that it is being used in addition to the media crackdown suggests something very powerful: Media suppression is no longer as viable an option as it once was. Governments may have no choice but to contend with some degree of free media. As one BBC reporter put it, “The days when regimes can control the flow of information are over.” Amid numerous other indicators of government control slipping in the media sector, the past five days in Iran serve as another example of that phenomenon. This one perhaps will represent the most significant event signaling that change. Quite literally, the whole world is watching, and there is no doubt that citizens from other countries are taking note of the effectiveness of communicating and organizing through the internet. So the next question, of course, is what will happen next. Beyond the results of the upcoming election recount, will Iran have to rewrite its laws regarding free speech? Will these events necessitate the liberalizing of free speech laws in many countries? Or will it have the opposite effect of enhancing government suppression of new media? I think it will be the former. In the words of CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, “You can’t keep any of this news down anymore, and that’s a huge change from the past. The process of getting the word out is democratized.” Just what shape this democratization will entail will be very interesting.
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Written by: Katya Fisher Yoffe