Iran, Facebook, and the Limits of Online Activism
The green movement's Internet leaders are learning the perils and pitfalls of online organizing -- the hard way.
A group of Iran’s green movement activists had a grand and detailed vision for what was supposed to happen on Feb. 11. They called it a "Trojan Horse" strategy: Backers of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, camouflaged in unassuming attire, would attend the official regime-backed rally commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Then, at a pre-arranged time, they would assemble in front of the cameras of the foreign news media, reveal themselves as enthusiasts of the green movement, and denounce the brutality of the government for all the world to see.
As we all know, however, there was no great reveal at the official rally: The plan didn’t work, and Feb. 11 will be remembered by Iran’s activists not as a triumph, but as a disappointment. And the scale of the setback, which has placed a significant damper on the movement’s spirits, is closely tied to the specificity and grandiosity of the visions that were being cultivated in the preceding weeks via blogs, forwarded emails, and social networking sites.
Iranian activists have long reaped the benefits of Internet communication, but especially in the months since the June 12 election, they have also fallen prey to its pitfalls. Reassured by their own online echo chambers, activists and participants allowed their optimism to grow like a market bubble — a bubble that, many say, was popped on Thursday.
Now, many of the greens are experiencing a sort of idealism hangover. Mohammad Sadeghi, the 27-year old Iranian-German who administers Mousavi’s official Facebook page, admits that he doesn’t know what comes next. He has always managed to be one step ahead of the manifold events of the past year, but now he’s at a loss.
He created the Facebook page last January, before Mousavi had even officially declared his candidacy, back in the days when Facebook was still freely accessible to any Internet user in Iran. In the following months, after the page had attracted a small but devoted following, Mousavi’s campaign reached out to him, expressing its desire to consult and cooperate with him in the run-up to the election.
After the election, Mousavi’s Tehran-based campaign and his Germany-based Facebook site experienced diverging fates. Layers of campaign staff were hauled off to Iranian prisons, while the Facebook site saw an explosion in followers. Sadeghi decided that he had a responsibility to independently continue the campaign in Mousavi’s name, to serve as a meeting place, conference room, and bulletin board for sympathizers and activists. By his account, the Facebook page played a key role in propagating the defiant nightly "Allahu Akbar" chant and organizing the protest schedule linked to major Iranian and Shiite holidays.
But Sadeghi also admits that he and his Facebook followers had only planned their activities through Feb. 11. He had supposed that by this point the movement’s strength would be so manifest, and the regime’s legitimacy so tattered, that the greens could finally enter negotiations and the protest movement would become unnecessary. Now, Sadeghi sees dark days ahead: He thinks the people of Iran are doomed to weather a military coup, an anarchic civil war, or international sanctions that cause mass suffering.
Like many of the green movement activists, Sadeghi’s belief in the protests seems related to their "horizontal organization," the fact that they were structured without hierarchies. This was supposed to be the great strength of the movement, but it is also an abiding weakness. A horizontal organization can’t clearly delineate different roles to different people according to their strengths; it can’t reward those who participate, or sanction those who hesitate. Facebook enabled many young Iranians to forget these points. Though Sadeghi says he’s addressing green activists in Iran when he posts on Mousavi’s Facebook site, he admits that he doesn’t know what percentage of his followers are even in the country, and the official statistics suggest that the vast majority are abroad.
Ultimately, the blessings of new technology do not eliminate the tried and true virtues of institution-building. It’s often recalled that the Islamic Revolution succeeded not least because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini so savvily subverted his imposed exile in Iraq and France by means of cassette recordings denouncing the shah. It’s less remarked upon that Khomeini had developed over the previous decades an organization of followers that was prepared not only to distribute his cassettes, but also to develop institutions that adhered to his vision. Khomeini succeeded not only because of his reach of his spiritualism, or the fervor he aroused with his rhetoric, but because of his commitment to old-fashioned political spade work.
The disappointment of Feb. 11 should be used as an opportunity for a clear-eyed look at the relationships that have developed among activists by means of Internet technology, as well as at the role that technology should play in any deep political change in Iran. Activists outside of the country should check their enthusiasm with the reminder that they can’t participate in protests in Iran, that at most they can facilitate communications about them or observe them at a remove. Indeed, it would be most effective if they focused on pressuring the governments in their own resident countries to pay the in-country Iranian activists more heed.
Furthermore, all activists should remember that mass movements in Iran are going to rely heavily on methods of spreading information that don’t require regular Web access and proxy servers to get around government filters and monitoring. Text messaging proved much more important in the first major post-election protests than did Internet sites. Word of mouth shouldn’t be neglected either, especially among the traditional classes that may be suspicious of upheaval.
And rather than ever insisting on the horizontal nature of the movement, Iran’s Internet activists — and the Internet’s Iran activists — should more properly give Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammed Khatami their due as the putative leaders of the campaign. The many-voiced, every-man-for-himself spirit of the Iranian blogosphere is an admirable exercise of the freedom of expression, but it is not the ideal way for a group to concentrate its energies in negotiations with a hostile state.
Cynicism and despair may be the order of the day among Iranian activists. They would do well, though, to remember that social movements on this scale are not a sprint, but a marathon. In fact, that’s another lesson that might be learned from Khomeini — he began his agitations against the shah in the early 1960s, a good 15 years before he began realizing his visions of an Islamic state. The greens may be working to subvert that vision, but they would do well to endorse his cunning patience. Indeed, it’s the exception, not the rule, that regimes have fallen by means of a Trojan Horse.
Cameron Abadi is a Berlin-based writer for Die Zeit and Spiegel International.