Still watching…How 140 characters can inform direct political action

June 2009 the world got much smaller. Citizens of every nation worldwide watched the events unfolding in Iran and as disbelief mounted into insecurity and anger the world spoke out. The last two weeks of June saw every venue for correspondence and discussion utilized in a manner that brought people and ideas together at a rapid pace. True dissidence was achieved, and not just through the on-the-ground protests of the Iranian people. Support for the state of Iran and its citizens grew around the world through on-line media and social news aggregators. Huffington Post and The Guardian hosted live feeds of the Iranian civil unrest and up to the minute news, reactions, and actions were documented through video footage, and visual images; and direct information were received on mass via text, e-mail and tweets.

There was an immediate and totalitarian crack down on all outside media, and all approved state sponsored news coverage was censored to an obscene point. However, Iranians and people around the world refused to let the censorship inform or cease communication. Technology nerds globally united to find digital solutions to an in-enforceable act. While the Iranian government was searching IP addresses to locate individuals, servers in multiple countries had been used to route multiple users and messages coming out of Iran to look as if they originated from towns in Poland, Wisconsin, or Alberta. E-mails, tweets, Facebook messages, blog posts, text messages… viral communication had reached a height yet to be documented. Critical information on targeted individuals and rally sites, on police crack downs and midnight arrests, on deaths and injuries were all spread quickly and immediately due to the incredible community that sprang up to support women and men we may never meet, in a country we may never visit.

Institutional actors, evident by their increased reliance on news aggregation, and social networking site, recognized this social outreach. Comments left on mainstream media’s coverage of the Iran unrest numbered in the thousands. Canadian coverage of the events were numerous and in-depth. Canadians were watching and they wanted the world and our government to know. While it may mean little on an individual level, upper level political actors notice, because showing that your listening to what your people care about translates into votes. Current demonstrations against Iran and the latest walkouts during the UN General Assembly meeting were likely correlated. While little was achieved in Iran during the un-rest, no one is supporting the Iranian governments actions.

Social media was effective for sharing information and news updates. Especially the social network so often cast aside as “the new Facebook”, which was “the new MySpace”, which was “the new Friendster.” So many do not recognize the inherent difference of these tools. The demographics that participate in these Internet based communities are significantly different from one another, leading to significantly different outputs.

Twitter engagement was high during the unrest and while superficial tokens of support were offered – the green wash over avatars and a green ribbon on the bottom right hand corner – there was also support to many people in Iran through server sharing and information repeated to cast a wider net upon the community. In Edmonton alone, saw an increase of twitter use for the week of June 12th – 16th, averaging 6800 tweets a day. Key search tags were quickly settled on to create a stream for the conversation. By searching #iranelection a person can get millions of posts made by hundreds of thousands of Twitter users, giving a board and direct picture of an event or that days highlights. Twitter and other sites became depended on for spreading information and relaying human rights abuses. So much so, the United States government asked the host of Twitter to reschedule a regular severe maintenance that would have resulted in a blackout of Twitter use for a period of several hours. While this would not be the end of the unrest nor would it cease Iranians from protesting, it could have lead to a breakdown in information and painstakingly set up viral networks.

This change in accessing information became a personal exploration, nay, an obsession for myself during the weeks after June 12th. Twitter, Huffington Post and The Guardian were open on my laptop twenty four hours a day and my data use from my PDA was higher that I though I could get it. This is likely atypical, I know a few people as current event obsessed as myself and I prefer to think there are more people than not who chose sanity over constant torment. The interaction available through web 2.0 programming was incredible. Being able to reach out and to know minute-to-minute updates of rallies or police crackdowns was an experience I find hard to put into tangible values. I was so involved, a virtual participant in a situation I had no physical stake in and for a cause I could do little to influence other than lending my voice to the cry. I felt impotent and disillusioned. Hoping that I could influence my government, who would in turn use international pressure to influence the state of Iran, it felt like I was trying to build a house with a toothpick. No tools for chance, I continually questioned what my role could be.

That did not stop my interactions though, if anything it fueled them. At the very least, I felt a responsibility to remain informed and not shield myself from these all too important events. The video clips and radio updates from journalists that chose to remain in Iran under cover were all pieces of information I relied upon to understand the great picture. Iran’s unrest did not end at its borders, it split into the streets of Ottawa and London.

Citizens worldwide are still using these technologies to continue documenting the history of what is happening. The arrests are continuing in Iran, people are still under a totalitarian government and while the international community imposes sanctions, it is not the elite that are starving it is the small rural villages that go without. Maybe social media cannot fix the world, but it has changed it.

Originally published: October 1st, 2009. Features Editor, The Meliorist, University of Lethbridge. Volume 43, Issue 04.

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