Social media affords Iran a broader conversation

2013-11-07 13:26

One of the major drivers of change leading up to the Arab Spring has undoubtedly been the globalisation of information and communications technology (ICT) which allowed the regional unemployed youth not only to connect with each other, but also with the outside Western world where there are more freedoms and liberty than in their home countries.

ICT like Facebook and Twitter enabled dissatisfied youths to organise protests, rally support and spread the story of the revolution across the world in real time. Socially and politically young Arabs demanded the same freedoms and liberties of their Western counterparts, whilst at the same time being reluctant to give up their heritage and faith.

Iran had its own social media revolution in 2009, two years before the advent of the Arab Spring, when social media was widely used to boost anti-government protests (and unrest) after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The outcome was a government ban on social media sites which had not been lifted since. This Internet-censorship has however not stopped the Iranian public form using social media with more than two million Iranians accessing Facebook through proxies and virtual private networks.

One of the first signs of a possible thawing in Iran’s hard-line approach to social media came in 2012 when its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a decree stating that Facebook was permissible as long as it was not used for so-called bad purposes. Barely a year later and Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani and the majority of his Cabinet have all opened Facebook pages through a proxy server. The moderate President Rouhani is also active on Twitter with more than 122 000 followers.

Taking these latest developments into account, it seems as if the Iranian-regime has come to realise that the ICT-revolution cannot be stopped. It is a way of life and even repressive regimes will have to concede to its power sooner or later. It is true that the state as a political actor has the power to curb, or even dismantle the physical infrastructure that affords its citizens access to the Internet. But, as the Iranian-regime and others have seen, such a move only leads to more resentment and mobilisation amongst ordinary citizens.

There is little doubt that Iran will utilise social media sites for its own propaganda and to discredit its opposition, much like the Bahraini-regime has been doing since the start of its Arab Spring. It may also take longer than expected for the regime to endorse unrestricted social media use, if ever. But that’s not the point. Of importance is that Iran is slowly but surely opening up to the rest of the world. It is, in spite of itself becoming part of a broader conversation.

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