Is the internet any different?
It is hard to say whether America’s present internet intervention policies are a deterrent from, or an aperture to, sanctions and/or military action against Iran. Some American progressives denounced the Iran Freedom Act as “laying the groundwork for war.” But since 2009, some blogger activists in Iran, as well as Iranian American analyst Abbas Milani at Stanford University, have called for stronger US action in further facilitating internet access in Iran. It remains to be seen whether US investment and/policy in this vein has any direct influence for civil society inside Iran. However, what is clear are the difficulties that international money has brought upon Iranian NGOs in the past, having had the assistance deemed as “foreign intervention” by the Islamic Republic.
But, surely, precisely any elements that make controlling the internet difficult for authoritarian regimes also make it difficult to use as a targeted tool of intervention. Its many-to-many (versus broadcast’s one-to-many) capability for distributing content is one such quality, making the internet’s relatively speedy, low-cost, and large-scale interactive potentials too unruly for a single top-down truth campaign. This also makes it impossible for all international online involvement in Iran’s social movements or civil society to be reduced to simply instances of foreign interference.
As in Tunisia and Egypt, a multiplicity of international support was shown to Iranian protesters through, and because of, internet communications. Whether through the proxy servers offered, the DDoS attacks carried out on regime websites, or simply the widespread and timely sharing of protest footage on Facebook and Twitter outside the country. Whether through individuals or organizations, government or non-government funded sources, the variety of direct support reflected a difference from what broadcast media were capable of offering in many ways.
Just one of these was the circulation of protest footage that was combined with a soundtrack and, sometimes, photographic stills. As the original protest footage circulated online it quickly became adapted, built-upon, and developed into what can be called a genre of its own: the first interactive, multimedia montages of revolution to be circulated to a wide audience while the event itself is still unfolding. These mash-up products not only mobilize networks of emotional empathy, but the process of their production itself allows a network of people to add value through their creative alterations. This value is added even in the simple act of adding a personal subscript to the shared footage by taking up the invitation to “say something about this link.”
What’s in a medium?
Media scholar, Marshal McLuhan’s seminal claim is that the medium always embeds itself within the message it conveys. Indeed, McLuhan’s idea(l) of the “global village” directly inspired the San Franciscan, hippy internet boosters and has since become firmly entrenched in many common views of the internet today. Utopian societies aside, if we want to understand how narratives about internet technologies and applications play a part in struggles over the internet, we are well-served to take seriously the question of how the medium influences the message.
This question tends to be left unaddressed by the staunchest internet skeptics. Seemingly satisfied with beating the (mostly-) dead horse of the Twitter Revolution, they emphasize that new media do not have all that much new to offer. Bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell’s much-cited piece, Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, placed him squarely in the counter-hype camp. To him, the medium of communication is rather irrelevant to the message communicated, but he prefers good-old-fashioned face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder activism. He reapplies this view in his recent comment on the Egyptian revolution, stating that the “strong ties” (as opposed to “weak ties”) necessary for the centralization and leadership that lead to effective activism and meaningful social change are not built via the internet.
Let us leave aside the poignant critique that points out Gladwell’s romanticization of activism and oversight of key combinations of weak and strong ties necessary for social change. Instead, returning to Turner’s study, let us recall a shift that took place with emergence of the internet from the 1950s Cold War notion of computers as machines of heartless State bureaucracy and interests, to the 60s’ countercultural movements. Inspired and fascinated by the structure of this new technology, ideologues like Howard Rheingold, helped reinvision computer users as a networked “virtual community,” intentionally framed in contrast to the centralization of the state. It also served the purpose of disconnecting the narrative of this new media from the US military project it started out as.
It seems Gladwell’s rejection of the internet’s power rests on his implicit acceptance of that original narrative: that the decentralized and non-hierarchical structure of technology itself leads to a decentralized and non-hierarchical structure of the social movements it is used in. But it is not entirely clear why this would necessarily be the case.
Do your part to lift the pain of sanctions on Iranian families.
Dear Catherine Ashton:
We, the undersigned, are concerned about the effects the implementation of sanctions are having on average Iranians. We are particularly concerned that items that are not sanctioned, such as medication and humanitarian goods are not reaching the people in Iran.
This is a time of great suffering in the region. We want to ensure that we are not further contributing to the suffering because of the denial of access to a payment channel for humanitarian items. We know the intention of the sanctions is to put pressure on Iran’s ruling elite. We worry that this is not the reality.
The brunt of the suffering falls on women and children and the most vulnerable in society. They suffer the consequences in very real ways. They lose their incomes, their homes, and their access to life-saving medication. Some of this suffering can be alleviated by facilitating the seamless implementation of the existing humanitarian exemptions. These include financial transactions related to medications, basic needs, and other items that are currently not sanctioned.
We ask the European Union to create a payment channel to accept transactions from Iran. This channel should be closely scrutinized. This will allow much needed financial transactions for medications and basic needs to take place.
It is crucial at this time when the people of Iran are desperately trying to make their own voices heard that we show we are listening. They went to the polls in an attempt to show their own government that they wanted reform and better relations with the outside world. We need to show we are listening.
Please help to avert a humanitarian disaster. Allow Iranians access to the international banking system to purchase medications and humanitarian goods.