Social media could hurt reformists in Iran

Sunday 24/07/2016
An Iranian man shows text messages from President Hassan Rohani on his mobile phone encouraging citizens to vote in the upcoming parliamentary and Experts Assembly elections, in Tehran, last February.

London - Blogging began in Iran in 2001, the story goes, with Hossein Darakhshan, known as Hoder or the “Iranian blogfather”, who would spend 2008-14 in jail. Opti­mists hailed the internet and social media as a new way for Iran’s young people to express their feelings; in 2005, UK-based writer Nasrin Alavi published a widely praised collec­tion of translated web diaries under the ambitious title We are Iran.

In the unrest following the dis­puted 2009 presidential election, demonstrators used social media as tools of organisation, prefigur­ing 2011’s ‘Arab spring’. In Iran and elsewhere, activists — even before they realised the intelligence ser­vices could also access Facebook — confused means with message.

Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Cen­tre in Beirut, warned at Christmas 2013 that there had been “excessive presentism, the tendency to think ‘We have Facebook and Twitter, no one’s ever had this before.’”

Using technology was no more innovatory, added Sayigh, than had been followers of Ayatollah Ruhol­lah Khomeini in circulating audio cassette tapes of his speeches in the 1970s or Gamal Abdel Nasser rally­ing Arab populations through radio broadcasts in the 1950s and ’60s.

In 2009, the internet was still a minority pursuit in Iran. That is changing. In a survey in June by IranPoll, Canada-based poll­sters linked to the University of Maryland, 42.8% of Iranians asked said they go online at least once a week “to become informed about the news”, a sharp increase from 33.6% in May 2015.

Contrary to what reformists and radicals expected, it is far from clear that internet access favours a re­form agenda. Iran’s principlists are increasingly linking work on the in­ternet to their “real-life” networks based on mosque, neighbourhood, workplace and the Basij.

“Material is distributed online and then printed as leaflets or posted up where people gather,” one Iranian academic told The Arab Weekly. “This is what happens with Khat-e Hezbollah [“The Line of Hezbollah”, a bulletin published on the website of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei].”

Khamenei’s website — which in­cludes news of the leader and his work in 14 languages — recently carried his speech rejecting wider “coordination” with the United States other than on the nuclear programme and his accusation that some regional countries are “back­ing the takfiri groups and support­ing their massacres and crimes in Syria”.

Other operators utilise Instagram, an application designed for sharing photos that is not banned in Iran, as are Twitter and Facebook. While owned by Facebook, Instagram is a self-contained application, a cul-de-sac keeping users within. Has­san Shemshadi, a reporter for Iran’s state television, uses Instagram to send 90,000 followers pictures honouring Iranian fighters in Syria, including “selfies”.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president who won the dis­puted 2009 election, launched a website in 2015 in which he praised the noble sacrifices of the 1980-88 Iraq war and fuelled speculation he might try and run in the 2017 presi­dential election.

Iran’s principlists may reflect an international tendency for so­cial media to reinforce and even strengthen intolerance rather than — as optimists expected — expose views to discussion and critique. In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, Dhruva Jaishankar of Brook­ings India wrote that social media “rather than creating connections with people who possess differing views and ideologies tends to rein­force prejudices”.

Jaishankar said: “Greater in­formation has, rather counter-intuitively, contributed to a ‘post-fact’ information environment” in which “populists are willing to cross the lines that mainstream parties have flirted with, becoming forces that the centre cannot hold”.

Jaishankar argued the British ref­erendum on leaving the European Union illustrates the way “the abil­ity to receive information in almost real time through mass media and to make one’s voice heard through social media… has contributed to polarisation, gridlock, dissatisfac­tion and misinformation”.

Could this be as true in Iran as in Britain? Certainly the facts and figures of the Ahmadinejad admin­istration — for example, leaving a crippling burden of non-perform­ing bank loans through cheap state loans and fiscal laxity — seem lost in a torrent of dissatisfaction with the administration of President Hassan Rohani in failing to boost the econ­omy now that sanctions have been eased.

Social media will play an unprec­edented role in the next Iranian presidential election, which will probably be in June 2017. The re­cent principlists’ use of social me­dia to expose high salaries of bank­ing executives was just the first salvo. Such tactics may prove more important for the presidential elec­tion than live television debates be­tween contenders.

This may be bad news for Rohani, who is already on shifting ground. The Iranpoll in June found that 74% of Iranians asked said Iran had re­ceived no economic benefits from the July 2015 nuclear deal. It also put Rohani’s lead over Ahmadine­jad, as a potential challenger, down to 8 percentage points from 27 points in May 2015.