While there have always been citizen movements and protests throughout history, the introduction of social media has added a new layer to these events. Notably, Iran has seen several protests since the Islamic regime took over in 1979. Iran’s Green Movement in 2009 marked the first widespread protests against the totalitarian regime. In recent months, nation-wide protests in Iran were catalysed by the tragic murder of 22-yeard-old Mahsa Amini who died at the hands of Iran’s “morality” police for simply failing to entirely cover her hair. Beyond the political aspect, these events raise the question: what tools are citizens using in Iran and how have they changed over the years? Could this not only reveal the democratization that digital media affords, but also mark the democratization of Iran entirely? This essay will argue that social media platforms create democratic spaces for dialogue. An analysis of Iran’s recent protests reveals the democratic digital space that plays a role in documentation and producing digital evidence, allows information to transcend borders, and how this can unfortunately be hindered by the government through censorship.
Firstly, social media plays a vital role in documentation and producing digital evidence. Gender inequality and the disregard for human rights have been inscribed in Iran’s legal system and decades of discrimination and oppression have led to several uprising movements against the horrific government. Social media’s role in the recent protests has been multi-faceted and while it is not necessarily a central driver in mobilization, it is certainly a helpful tool. Social media creates a democratic space where citizens can “[spread] awareness and solidarity” and offers “the ability to witness your fellow citizens and your fellow women taking a stand” which certainly creates an incentive to mobilize (Alterman, 2022, para. 6). Digital media helps document and circulate the injustices occurring which consequently fuels protests. This documentation creates a digital footprint and essentially archives this historic moment. So, while the democratization of digital media does not determine “the exact shape and form of protest, movements, or the eventual movement to democracy” (Alterman, 2022, para. 6), it does offer an opportunity to share information, critical updates, and news. According to Andrea Ratiu (2022), because traditional media is heavily biased and controlled by the Islamic regime, many Iranians turn to digital media for their news — Whatsapp, Telegram, Instagram, and Clubhouse being the most popular sources. For example, Clubhouse has become a powerful tool for Iranians to circulate opinions and document the recent events (Khalaji, 2022). Clubhouse allows users to join drop-in meetings and conversations virtually, creating a public sphere like space. Expect this “public sphere” is open to the underserved, including both men and women.
Moreover, digital media allows information to transcend borders and unites voices. Unlike traditional media, social media creates opportunity for dialogue and two-way engagement, both inside Iran and internationally. According to a Pew Research Center study, 86% of Americans get their news online through their phones and 53% get their news specifically from social media (Shearer, 2021). Twitter, for example, is used by 23% of Americans, and more than half of those users get their daily news on the app (Atske, 2021). These numbers point to the reliance on social media for news and the important role social media plays in circulating information. Iran’s nation-wide protests have not been solely confined within borders, but have traveled worldwide, with people amplifying Iranian voices. In this way, social media helps highlight the issue so that Iran is not isolated. Evidently, digital media is a critical tool for marginalized people around the world (Ratcliffe, 2022).
Artist: Mahdieh Farhadkiaei
For instance, many artists outside Iran have band together in solidarity for Iranian women’s freedom. Many Iranian artists are creating powerful pieces to spread awareness and fuel the conversation surrounding the tragic injustices Iranian citizens face daily. These brave people speaking out against the regime are part of a larger counterpublic: “a subset of publics that stand in conscientious opposition to a dominant ideology and strategically subvert that ideology’s construction in public discourse” (Fattal, 2018, p. 1). This counterpublic is manifested in forms of feminist Iranians, artists, singers, authors, activists, leaders, and many others that unite for the same reason: they are tired of this horrific regime that hinders their basic human rights.
This piece combines an image of the Azadi (Freedom) tower with Matisse’s dancers and the ‘women, life, freedom’ protest slogan. Artist: Jalz
Finally, while social media can create a digital democratic space, this very space can be leveraged by the government, making it a double-edged sword. In Iran’s case, the government is already beginning to violently crackdown on protestors, murdering hundreds of civilians as well as cracking down on communication systems. The government is actively censoring social media which consequently censors free speech. The regime has blocked access to many social media accounts, but often leaves some uninterrupted, such as Instagram and Clubhouse (Khalaji, 2022). This is because the regime uses social media as a propaganda tool (Khalaji, 2022). This highlights the issue of social media platforms as sources of news and how digital democracy can easily be hindered. For instance, authorities forced Iranian influencers to spread the regime’s propaganda using Instagram (Khalaji, 2022). This illustrates the crucial need for media literacy internationally. Furthermore, the virtual meet-up app, Clubhouse, has been used for monitoring citizens as well as a site for shaping public discourse in favour of the government (Khalaji, 2022). Thus, just as social media offers a channel for democracy, it can be abused and exploited for political power.
In conclusion, while social media is certainly a tool for citizens to document events and spread awareness across the globe, it can be wielded as a tool for the exploitative government as well. Social media has allowed people to freely speak and exchange ideas in ways I am sure the founders never expected. The question is whether traditional media is better for long-term reporting and news distribution. Ultimately, the real public sphere is outside digital spaces, and the Iranian people will be the ones to catalyze and sustain democracy.