The Revolution Will Be Tweeted
Harnessing social media's potential for political change
Last May, Mona Kasra visited Iran for the first time since leaving her native country nine years earlier. She had returned there for family reasons, but a fortuitous set of circumstances landed her back home at a time when Iran was in the final weeks of a heady presidential race, with hard-liner incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad trying to fend off fierce opposition – most notably from Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whose campaign platform included, of all things, equal rights for women.
The timing of Kasra's visit provided a firsthand look at how much Iran had changed, particularly for women – still veiled but hardly silent and very much a part of the political process. "I was surprised by what then came across as a democratic nation, very different from the Iran I remembered from my childhood," said Kasra, an artist and educator, currently pursuing a doctorate in emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas. "Iranians, especially the younger generation, were out openly and passionately campaigning for their favorite candidate," Kasra recounted in an e-mail interview with the Chronicle.
Kasra will be making her second visit to SXSW Interactive, this time as a speaker on a panel discussion on how Iranian women raised their global profile during the 2009 election by harnessing the power of social media – a topic she pitched to SXSW Interactive organizers based on her knowledge and experience.
"On the surface, everything suggested a very open election where everybody got to support one's favorite candidate," Kasra said. "Women's presence was very apparent during the weeks before the election. They participated both as campaign supporters and campaign organizers." What's more, Kasra continued, "for the first time, a candidate's wife [Mousavi's spouse, Zahra Rahnavard] was even campaigning for her husband, which was quite a new phenomenon in Iran's political history after the revolution" – a reference to the 1979 overthrow of the country's monarchy. "Yet, as we witnessed," Kasra said, "it soon proved to be otherwise!"
The questionable "landslide" victory of Ahmadinejad in an election largely believed to be rigged touched off a series of massive street protests, with digital media playing a pivotal role in galvanizing what became known as the "green movement" – green representing the symbol of Mousavi's campaign and his rallying cry for freedom of speech.
As it happened, Kasra left Iran and returned to the U.S. shortly before the June 12, 2009, election, but thanks to the likes of Twitter and YouTube, she, like the rest of the world, followed the turn of events after the election, watching and reading in real-time awe. Even as the Iranian government used its censorship powers to block access to text messages and social-networking sites, Twitter persevered by virtue of its agility, which allowed it to circumvent government-imposed cyber blockades. The U.S. Department of State even waded into the picture, asking Twitter to delay a scheduled upgrade, which would have temporarily shut down the network, to allow Iranians and supporters to continue their protests – to the tune of millions of hits per day.
Did the post-election events that captured the world stage represent a revolution for Iran, or for Twitter? Definitely Twitter, said David Parry, an emerging media professor at UT-Dallas, who will join Kasra on the Interactive panel. "When you have the U.S. State Department asking Twitter [to delay a scheduled shutdown], that's a revolution for Twitter. It suddenly becomes a major player" in global affairs, Parry said.
Still, the Iranian protests were not the first example of how social media played a key role in galvanizing the masses, Parry noted. The Philippines – not exactly known as a hotbed for technological breakthroughs – captured world attention as early as 2001 for its use of text messaging to spark dramatic protests that ultimately led to the public ouster of President Joseph Estrada. By comparison, a massive uprising in the United States via text messaging would end up siphoning plenty of wallets. "The U.S. is sort of backwards in that we charge disproportionately more for text messaging," Parry said.
While the Iranian election may have shed light on women's struggles for equal rights, the women's movement certainly didn't occur overnight. As an artist who thrives on the visual and verbal influence of emerging media, Kasra has kept a close eye on how the women's movement has evolved over the years. Without question, women's strength in numbers became most apparent after last year's election. "Iranian women have been using a variety of social media tools, the blogosphere in particular," Kasra said. "Yet, during the after-election unrest, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking technology provided women – and men – with the opportunity not only to mobilize and organize, but to get the word out, and to inform the world about the injustices. The retweets and repostings echoed, supported, and validated their message, even if it was by [way of] their supporters abroad," Kasra said.
The most shocking video posted in the election's aftermath was that of the tragic shooting death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman. "The video documenting her death grabbed global attention, as it provided evidence of the extent of brutality and repression," Kasra said. "It sparked an online community outcry. Suddenly, all avatars turned green in solidarity with the protesters in Iran who were being killed, beaten or arrested." Today, Neda Agha-Soltan is the human face of a movement for which so many others have lost their lives or who, according to Kasra, are still being imprisoned and tortured for speaking out.
On the whole, Iranian women have come a long way in the nine years since Kasra left her home country for the U.S., but there are new roadblocks that threaten progress. A "family protection" bill introduced last month would impose even more limitations on women's civil rights, particularly pertaining to alimony. Emboldened by their increased profile in the political arena last year, however, women have already taken steps to fight back. At press time, more than 1,200 women had signed a statement in opposition to the proposed law, according to the Change for Equality website, as well as a number of Twitter feeds.
Chalk up another revolution for social media. And for Iranian women.
2009 Iran Election: Women's Revolution? Twitter Revolution?
Sunday, March 14, 11am, ACC 10AB