When the first wave of pro-democratic uprising shook the Middle East at the end of 2010, known as “Arab Spring”, another important factor arose besides the intensity of the protests. A totally new way of organizing activist groups, raising awareness in the masses and bringing them together, was born all through the use of social media; which is now considered a primary distinctive feature in these uprisings.
Initially misunderstood and very much underestimated, the potential of a new media to alter or even disrupt the status quo has been often overlooked by the establishments. This showed itself clearly during the Vietnam war, when a continuous TV stream of information was broadcasted into the houses of millions of Americans, directly involving the public (as General W.C. Westmoreland, Commander in South Vietnam, commented himself) and exposing them to the real atrocities of the war and the traumas experienced by the young American soldiers. This, in turn, had contributed to fuel the anti-war sentiment, which has been considered by many as a major factor that contributed to the failure of the United States in the Vietnam conflict.
A lesson that the American establishment was quick to learn, so much so that less than twenty years later, in the occasion of the Gulf War of 1990-91, the Chief of Staff of the coalition army was already feeding reporters of all nationalities with extremely detailed, almost pre-packaged, information about the sufferings of the Kuwaiti people, the effectiveness of the air strikes, the surgical precision of the “smart” bombs and the stealth bombers, effectively facilitating the flow of information that was broadcasted by the main western media outlets that helped outline the image of a just, damage-controlled war against the aggressor State of Iraq.
If it is somehow easy to learn and harness a medium by acting on the main source of information, the game changes when a new medium becomes so widespread that the ability of producing and conveying information is in the hands of virtually everyone.
When the Arab uprising started spreading across the Middle East in 2010, news of the death of Khalid Said (an Egyptian man allegedly beaten to death by local security forces in Alexandria) found its way through Facebook. As a result, the page “We are all Khalid Said” became a symbol for the anti-government sentiment. Despite the attempt of the Egyptian authorities to block internet throughout the country, this case was the spark that ignited a full-fledged uprising against the Egyptian government, ultimately leading to its demise.
In more recent days, Iran is experiencing an unrest sparked by the sudden rise of petrol prices. It is not surprising that the first action from the government was to immediately shut down access to the internet and in fact it was; a population of 80 million “in the dark”. Although the country is not unfamiliar with filtering and the use of VPN to bypass such actions, this time, the internet shutdown is the most severe ever experienced, leaving Iran disconnected and isolated from the world. A very successful governmental censorship that managed to create a blurry image out of what was transpiring inside Iran, and initially succeeding to shape the domestic and international perspective in order to legitimize the reaction of the security forces in coping with the protestors. The shutdown has made it significantly difficult to assess the events going on during the protests that broke out in many cities across Iran after the dramatic increase of gasoline prices overnight.
According to NetBlock, a worldwide internet access monitor, connectivity in the country has fallen to between 4 to 5 percent of the ordinary level, making impossible for Iranians to go online.
This goes in the direction of the objective of the government to disrupt the free flow of information, and to prevent the Arab uprising reoccurrence, when the protestors in the Middle East organized themselves and shared information online. This intentional act is clearly mentioned by the spokesman of the government stating that the connection will be back “if we make sure that there’s no abuse”.
Although it is not yet possible to say for how long this policy of “pulling the plug” on the internet will work, it is a fact that, for a few days, the international media system was left with a lack of information about the status of the unrest in the country. That was until Amnesty International revealed, through autonomous reports, that the number of people killed in the protest was on a steep rise; a fact that was quickly picked by the worldwide media and immediately re-focused the global attention on the developing situation in Iran.
The complete shutdown of the internet in Iran effectively leaves the government as the only one that can say what is really happening in the country, and has indirectly recognized the impact of the social media and the need of the establishment to control it. However, the Iran case has also shown that information in an interconnected world has a tendency to travel limitlessly, always finding its way out, especially when it meets the myriad of the channels and actuators brought by modern technologies. Enter social media: an actor that is even more impactful and difficult to control than the traditional ones, and that is de-facto a new player in the scenario of global politics.
(You can read the last article by Ghazal Poorhasan here)