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Tweeting in Tehran: Lessons on How to Win (or Lose) a Revolution in the 21st Century

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December 3, 2009

Photo by Se Eun Gong

In a lecture Tuesday, Kourouss Esmaeli discussed the Iranian election that occurred on June 12, 2009, its aftermath, and the role technology played in this demonstration of opposition. The lecture, titled “Tweeting in Tehran: Lessons on How to Win (or Lose) a Revolution in the 21st Century,” was sponsored by the History department, in conjunction with Political Science and Religion Departments, Film & Media Studies, Islamic Studies, and Peace & Conflict Studies Programs.

Esmaeli began the lecture by explaining the circumstances that surrounded the 2009 June election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won 66% of the votes over his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. While most people thought Ahmadinejad would win, this significant margin of victory shocked the people and immediately sent up red flags, especially considering the results were announced only three hours after polls closed. Thousands took to the streets claiming fraud. The government responded by putting in place a “media blackout” where all means of communications were cut off, including text messaging. The goverment also declined to renew the visas of foreign journalists, so they were forced out of the country as the regime tried to regain control.

Despite the Iranian government’s actions, technology showed how influential it could be as cell phone footage became the primary means of showing the outside world what was going on. As time went on the videos became more and more gruesome; one such video showed a woman getting shot by a sniper, and the aftermath of the shooting. Hundreds of videos were captured on phones and uploaded to YouTube, where they were watched by people in the West and spread through Twitter.

When the Iranian government claimed the protests were the result of foreign intervention, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in a silent protest. They wanted to show that this was a popular movement – not the work of a small foreign group. Cell phones captured this footage and Twitter moved it throughout the world. In addition, people debated with each other on Facebook and Twitter. NBC even went so far as to label the events in Iran as the first Internet Revolution.

Photo by Se Eun Gong

Esmaeli showed photos that were uploaded to Facebook of people not only protesting the election but even protecting the Iranian Security Forces from other protestors who might hurt them. These powerful photos quickly spread around the world. Seeing these pictures, the Iranian government decided that some security forces could not be trusted and so they increased the levels of repression. Esmaeli explained the government’s view in giving the security forces a green light to target protestors: “There are two sides of this battle, I’m [the Iranian government] on one side and that side needs to take control of the streets”.

The Iranian conflict captured the attention of the world on the Internet for two weeks before another event forced it out of the spotlight: the death of Michael Jackson on June 25. After Jackson’s death, the movement never recovered and as Esmaeli said, “After two weeks Tweeting ran itself out”. As the protests died down, communications were restored and the repression was lessened. On major holidays, however, such as the anniversary of the Iranian hostage situation, protestors still flood the streets wearing green, the color of the opposition. Esmaeli emphasized the importance of these moments, the questions that they will raise for the protestors, and whether the government will react violently.

Esmaeli also said that these events were important because Iranians took pride in their ability to stand up for themselves and demand honesty in their politics in a way that Americans have not always done. The people displayed a unified front by protesting the company Nokia, who fed civilian information to the Iranian government. But perhaps the most important fact, in Esmaeli’s opinion, was that this movement was the first such demonstration since the economic slump. The economic downturn unified the people and led to a higher voter turnout. As Esmaeli said, this Iranian protest “is becoming the first fight back against economic slump.”

The Iranian election and its aftermath showed the power of technology to power a protest movement. The Iranian people used the Internet not only to show the world the extent of repression by the Iranian government, but also to organize mass political protests. This situation also opened the world’s eyes to the political power that comes with being able to connect all people via the Internet. As Esmaeli said: “Twitter became the fundamental way that people were telling the story of Iran.”