Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society after 2009

cover image

By: David M. Faris
Babak Rahimi , Editor

Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2015. 334pp. $85.00. ISBN: 9781438458830

Volume: 4 Issue: 11

November 2016

Review by:

Rolin G. Mainuddin, PhD

North Carolina Central University

Durham, NC

Given its accepted network role, what is the state of social media in Iran? David Faris and Babak Rahimi brought together a diverse group of contributors to address that question with attention to the 2009 presidential elections. Not anticipating the promotion of collective action, the editors are sanguine about the social media facilitating dissent—what Nancy Fraser called “counterpublics.” Focusing on the experiential and networking processes, Faris and Rahimi explore three theoretical perspectives: globalization, networked communities, and communications. The edited book, with original contributions, is divided into three parts: societal, politics, and culture. The societal segment discusses Facebook, gender, gays, and the disabled. The politics section is the centerpiece and covers online journalism, blogs, Facebook election campaigns, web protests, contested Persian language space, government counter-strategy, political memorialization, and a comparative study. The culture portion gives a glimpse of cinema and video art.

Jari Eloranta, Hossein Kermani, and Rahimi focus on Facebook in Chapter 1 in addressing social capital formation, which is associated with democracy promotion through the twin elements of trust and connectivity. Distinguishing it from the internal relations of “bonding,” the key to social capital for the Internet is the external relations of “bridging” in establishing new contacts—a point also noted by Mohammad Esfahlani.

Chapters 2-4 focus on gender, gays, and the disabled, respectively. In a textual analysis of Persian-language Facebook pages and blogs, Elham Gheytanchi finds that the uprising of 2009 led to the creation of a politically vocal Internet group, the Mothers of Park Laleh (originally called the Mourning Mothers of Iran). Abouzar Nasirzadeh holds that the gay community falls into three categories of Internet users: socializers, information disseminators, and bridge makers. Those in the third category have taken to online political activism in three ways: developing Farsi language alternative to Western words, increasing visibility and humanity of gay individuals, and countering homophobia. What is noteworthy for Nasirzadeh is the absence of lesbians in the online social media. Kobra Elahifar notes that the Internet social media empowerment of the disabled is at the individual level given the continued stigmatization by the society. In contrast to the extroverted “rich become richer” hypothesis (Patti Valkenberg and Jochen Peter), Elahifar finds support for the introverted “social compensation” hypothesis (Katelyn McKenna and John Bargh). In addition, there is a gender differentiation for both the gay community and the disabled.

With the 2005 rise to power by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad there were censorship of Internet blogging and persecution of journalists. These policies were countered by a growth of online journalism outside government control, observes Marcus Michaelsen in Chapter 5. He gives interesting insights about reformist online activities and counter-moves by the government. Mosharekat (Participation Front) and Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e Eslami (Warriors of the Islamic Revolution) newspapers moved online in the face of press censorship. Likewise, reformist Shargh (East) daily newspaper in 2006 reappeared as Shahr-e Farda (City of Tomorrow) website. When judicial authorities closed down Baztab (Reflection) website in 2007, Tabnak (Shining) website appeared soon thereafter. Iranian journalists in exile in 2005 founded Rooz (Day) online newspaper. Keyhan (Cosmos) hardline print newspaper accused Emrouz (Today) website of being a tool of the West. Yek Khabar (A Message) and Efsha (Disclosure) conservative websites targeted reformist politicians. Gooyaa conservative website was launched to counter the popular Gooya (Rational) reformist website.

In Chapter 6 Arash Falasiri and Nazanin Ghanavizi examine dissent in the blogosphere, which they view as a public realm in citing Hannah Arendt. They hold that Internet blogging in Iran is facilitated by four factors: high speed, low cost, high literacy, and high unemployment. Along with communication, deliberation, and exchange of ideas, the blogosphere plays an important role in promoting public awareness. Whereas Twitter is useful for fast updates, Facebook blogging has been paramount for three reasons: control, security, and networks.

Esfahlani elaborates on conflict within the ruling elite in Chapter 7. During the 1985 power struggle between conservative President Syed Ali Khamenei and moderate Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini intervened to preserve Mousavi in office. The 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami ushered a reformist era. However, the reformist camp was ousted following the 2005 election of President Ahmadinejad—and privileged the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), adds Samira Rajabi. The 2009 campaign by Mousavi led to the Green Wave, which was transformed into the Green Movement following the presidential election results. The social capital accumulated helped the 2013 election of reformist President Hassan Rouhani. Contrary to the skepticism in the introduction by Faris and Rahimi (pp. 4-6), Esfahlani argues with impressive graphs of Mousavi’s Facebook page that collective action is “central” to social movements in drawing attention to three types of “framing”: diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational. The contribution by Esfahlani is the most insightful in the book.

The June 2009 post-election protests marked a “trans-spatial” collective action by activists at home and in the diaspora for political reform in Iran, argues Reza Nejad in Chapter 8. The Web 2.0 social media (Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, and wikis) facilitated crowd-sourcing in allowing activists to simultaneously be the audience and content creators. In a case study of Balatarin, a Persian language online blogging site, Rahimi and Nima Rassooli examine the politics of gatekeeping in Chapter 9. The Green Movement activists became unofficial gatekeepers in undermining impartiality. Not only religiously blasphemous posts were banned by site administrators for fear of government retaliation, but also rights for Kurd and Azeri ethnic minorities were downplayed in an online voting process.

Faris provides a useful comparative framework of three regime types in Chapter 10 for understanding authoritarian governance of the Internet social media: response, control, and cordon. In categorizing Egypt as a response regime under Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring, he views Iran as a cordon regime during the 2009 elections upheaval. The post-2009 elections “soft war” by the Islamic Republic is distinct from the “soft power” concept by Joseph Nye in two ways, argues Niki Akhavan in Chapter 11: narrower focus of preserving moral fabric of the society and couching state counter-offensive as public safety (national security and criminal) issues. The author notes the 2011 establishment of Polic-e Fazay-e Toleed va Tabadeel Etellaat (The Police for the Sphere of the Production and Exchange of Information, FATA), the cyber police. Other attempts were the Gerdab (Whirlpool) Project by IRGC and Sazmaan-e Zanan-e Enghelab-e Eslami (Organization of the Women of the Islamic Republic) website. In Chapter 12 Rajabi argues that the cultivation of shahid (martyrdom) as a state policy since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War was the context that transformed Neda Agha-Soltan from a “referential” to an “iconic” image. In transitioning from a collective memory to a political memory, her death itself became the driving force for the reform movement.

Chapters 13-14 deal with culture. Michelle Langford holds that cinema and the social media are converging in promoting “collective intelligence.” She credits the Internet with distribution of Iranian films banned by the authorities. However, video-based social media has been undermined by government imposed filtering and speed restrictions. With attention to the virtual museum Vimeo, Staci Scheiwiller discusses video art as an artistic medium for rebellion. Noting the preference for Vimeo platform by Iranian artists for its avant-garde display, she is concerned that uninformed buyers may be procuring low quality artwork for profit motive. Langford and Scheiwiller open an interesting window into Iranian films and videos.

The societal and culture parts seem grafted on to the politics section. The book would have been better served in being limited to politics. Also, the broader framework of the social media facilitating dissent in Iran could have been better articulated in the introduction. While Michaelson mentioned “fragmented authoritarianism” involving hardline and conservative factions within the ruling elite (p. 105), furthermore, he left the reader waiting for insight into that dynamics. In addition, Rajabi did not clarify how Agha-Soltan being an active participant was related to the transformative process discussed (p. 234). Finally, a separate conclusion that tied together the various contributing chapters to the theoretical framework of globalization, networked communities, and communications would have been helpful. Nevertheless, those in communications studies will enjoy a fascinating glimpse into the social media in Iran. In particular, non-Farsi speaking readers will find useful information. Those interested in the 2009 presidential elections and the subsequent protest movement will benefit from the essays.

Reviews By Year

Reviews By Category