Web Exclusive Essay
In summer 2009, public discontent around the outcome of the Iranian elections sparked a worldwide response, largely because of the visibility these protests gained through social networking sites. What happened in Tehran retrospectively can be seen as an early sign of larger unrest in the region, which gave rise to the so-called Arab Spring which started in late 2010 and reached its fullest scope in 2011. Journalists, bloggers, and other cyber-enthusiasts have celebrated the use of sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube by protesters in each of these countries and by their supporters from the West as a decisive sign that grassroots communicators might be able to route around government censors and that citizen journalists might be able to force international concerns onto the agenda of the professional news media. And this perceived value of social media platforms as potential tools for political change were further fueled in the U.S. by early 2011 protests against the Wisconsin governor, who was pushing to end collective bargaining for government employees in in the state, and by the emergence of the Occupy movement in fall 2011.
In each case, the capacity of everyday people to circulate information and opinion online—rather than going through professional journalists—was key in shaping and mobilizing public opinion. A full account of these efforts would require a book of its own. However, here, I want to explore some key lessons from the Iranian example and to point to some of the larger questions it raises about the value of social media for political activism.
Iranian protesters were particularly well prepared to use digital networks to spread their perspectives, given the country’s high level of digital literacy when compared to many of its neighbors in the region. Approximately 35 percent of the Iranian population has Internet access, a figure well above the national average across the Middle East (Carafano 2009). There are more than 60,000 blogs in Iran, making it one of the most active blogging communities in the world (Corley 2009). By 2008, six out of every ten Iranians were mobile subscribers, and Iran represented the third-largest country among participants in the Orkut social network site, after Brazil and India.
Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of the Global Voices Project, argues that—for the protesters in Iran—the country’s long history of governmental repression and tight regulation of Internet communication helped shape the savvy response among protesters (quoted in Corley 2009). Many Iranians already knew how to use proxies to route around censorship and had communication avenues to leverage the dispersed population of 2–4 million Iranian immigrants and exiles worldwide. Says Zuckerman, “The longer a country censors and the more aggressively it censors, the more incentive it gives citizens to learn how to get around that.” Sometimes, these proxies had been used to ensure the flow of information out of the country, often routed through Iranian immigrants and exiles overseas. Other times, the channels had been used to gain access to pirated videos or mp3 files of pop singers, often blocked by Islamic authorities as they sought to cut their young people off from the “corrupting” influence of Western media. Zuckerman describes the “latent capacity” of citizens, suggesting that these abilities to work around constraints become mobilized during moments of political crisis.
Indeed, between June 7 and June 26, the Web Ecology Project (2009) at Harvard University recorded 2,024,166 tweets about the Iranian election, involving 480,000 people. Meanwhile, CNN’s iReport received more than 1,600 citizen-produced reports from Iran (Carafano 2009), mostly photographs but also videos of the actions in the street, recorded and transmitted via mobile phones.
In a moment of exuberance, Andrew Sullivan blogged, “That a new information technology could be improvised for this purpose so swiftly is a sign of the times. [. . .] You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before” (2009). What gave Twitter its cultural power, Sullivan proclaimed, was that it was “sharable and open and participatory” at a time when the movements of mainstream journalists working in the country were severely limited. Not only were journalists’ messages to the outside world under tight governmental scrutiny, but some foreign journalists were being detained by authorities, while others were warned that they would be deported if they reported from the streets.
We should be clear that the political structures of Iran proved to be more stable and resourceful than Sullivan and others might have imagined at the time: the protests were ultimately contained without dramatic political change, suggesting that, in the most immediate sense, the grassroots uprising “failed.” Sean Aday et al.’s 2010 report Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Times argues that Twitter participation inside Iran was too low to have made much difference on the ground (estimating that as few as 100 people may have produced most of the Twitter traffic out of the country) and that the regime in power likewise used social network tools to monitor the behavior of protesters and often to circulate counterrevolutionary materials. However, the report concludes,
Where Twitter and other new media clearly did matter is how they conveyed information about the protests to the outside world. Traditional media were at a disadvantage in covering events inside Iran because of restrictions placed on journalists, and thus ended up relying on new media for content. Hence, the outside world’s perceptions of the protests were crucially shaped by Twitter (as conveyed through blogs and other means), amateur videos uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, and other sources. (22)
Harold Innis (1951) might say that what happened challenged two “monopolies of knowledge” which potentially regulated the flow of information from Tehran to the United States: the Iranian government’s desire to contain news of the protest and the mainstream news media’s ability to determine the priority it gave to covering specific events.
The emergence of a similarly “hybrid” communication system in the face of a 2007–2008 national crisis in Pakistan following the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto offers a strong model for how a network of local activists, diasporic communities, and Western supporters could ensure the flow of information to interested outside parties. In a report for the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, Huma Yusuf documents how Pakistani protesters on the ground and supporters overseas cobbled together a communications system through the tactical use of various social network platforms:
The only antidote to the government’s control of digital and new media tools [. . .] was the widening of the networked public sphere to include Pakistanis in the diaspora and global media sources. For example, when the government blocked news channels and jammed cellular networks in November 2007, young Pakistanis across the globe continued to plan and organize protest rallies via the social networking site Facebook. Similarly, when university students demanding the restoration of an independent judiciary realized that security officials had prevented journalists from covering their protest, they submitted self-generated video clips and images to CNN’s iReport, an online citizen journalism initiative. Indeed, as Pakistan’s media landscape became a hybrid model in which professional and amateur journalists generated and disseminated news by whatever means possible, international mainstream media outfits such as CNN, the BBC, and the UK-based Channel 4 increasingly sought out hyperlocal reporting posted to local blogs, YouTube, and Facebook. (2009)
As Pakistani participants (both on the ground and in diasporic communities) in these grassroots channels came to realize the growing centrality of their efforts in the larger public’s understanding of the crisis, they took on greater responsibility. These grassroots communicators focused on rapid but detailed documentation, taking their cell phone cameras into the streets to record what was happening and sending that content to the outside world as quickly as possible.
Despite claims that young people in Iran were using Twitter to “organize” their rebellion, Twitter had limits as a means of actually coordinating protests within Iran. Most of the tweets needed to be in English because the site’s interface could not accommodate Farsi characters, and there was ongoing disruption of mobile phone communications inside the country. Rather, the greatest impact of Twitter was in getting the protesters’ agenda and experiences in front of potential supporters outside the country. Messages such as “my friends are being held against their will in the university” or “Rasoul Akram hospital has medics outside, go there for help” communicated what was happening on the ground with emotional immediacy, especially when coupled with the vivid images posted on Flickr and the intense videos shared via YouTube.
The widely circulated YouTube video of the bloody death of Neda, a young Iranian woman who was shot by progovernment paramilitary militia, represented a rallying point both in Iran itself—where the young woman’s portrait, captured from the grainy video, was carried by protesters and mourners through the streets—and in the West. Neda, whose name in Farsi means “The Voice,” put a face to the anonymous voices that U.S. residents were accessing online. This gut-wrenching footage spread alongside more empowering videos showing local protesters routing government forces by throwing rocks from bridges. This “video low” (Fiske 1994) created a greater sense of emotional immediacy than the reports recorded and transmitted by professional news cameramen. As such, Clay Shirky has argued that Twitter’s impact in this instance was more affective than informational:
As a medium gets faster, it gets more emotional. We feel faster than we think. But Twitter is also just a much more personal medium. Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement. [. . .] Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it. Even if it’s just retweeting, you’re aiding the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the outside world is paying attention is really valuable. (2009)
These strong emotions reflected the cumulative effect of an ongoing but always fragile flow of messages from the streets of Tehran. The protesters appealed directly to the desire among a large group of Twitter users to know what was happening and that group’s fantasy of exerting a greater influence over world events. Much as the daily flow of messages about mundane matters left people using social network sites feeling stronger personal ties to their friends, the flow of political messages through Twitter left them feeling more directly implicated in the protest. Global citizens helped the Iranian protesters route around potential censorship and technical roadblocks, translated their thoughts into English, distinguished reliable information from rumors, passed what they had learned on to others, and rallied to force news outlets to pay more attention.
Established journalists often did not understand why so many people were emotionally invested in these Twitter reports. A Time writer explained, “The vast body of information about current events in Iran that circulates on Twitter is chaotic, subjective and totally unverifiable” (Grossman 2009). Others dismissed the Twitter chatter as “participant voyeurism” (Forte 2009) or charged that the bloody videos of the street violence were high-tech “snuff films” (Stevens 2009). The news media understood its job as informing the public, not stirring it to action—thus underestimating the value of affective media in sparking interest in international events.
Just as the commercial entertainment industry was caught off-guard by the surprising interest in Susan Boyle (as described in Spreadable Media’s introduction), the mainstream news media was sluggish in recognizing and responding to the heightened public interest in the Tehran protests. At the time of the Iranian protests, mainstream media had been slowly cutting back on international news coverage, seeking to save money at a time when newspapers were closing their doors due to declining ad and subscription revenues and when the most popular television news programs on a growing number of 24/7 news channels prioritized commentary over reporting. These outlets justified their decision by claiming that U.S. residents were indifferent to what was happening in other parts of the world. Yet, for at least the most wired segments of the population, the events in Iran were hard to ignore. This immediate access to events raised expectations about mainstream news coverage, with U.S.-based bloggers and Twitterers making #CNNfail (an example of the hashtag added to tweets by Twitter users to make them more easily searchable) a rallying point.
In response to the public outcry against CNN, the station’s executives asserted that they had, in fact, done a better job of covering the protests than many other news outlets had and noted that their platform for citizen journalists—iReport—had been a key portal through which more fully elaborated reports reached the public (Nies 2009). And, in response to this visible protest, CNN at least significantly increased its coverage of the events in Iran.
Newsrooms are still struggling to figure out what their new roles may be in this environment, where the demand for information can be driven by affect and shaped by what happens within online communities, where citizens may make demands on what they cover and may route around them if they fail to provide the desired information. Thus, spreadability is what happens when the Networks (commercial producers and distributors) meet the networks (the social communities—sometimes facilitated by social network sites—which are engaged in ongoing conversations).
While smooth relations between grassroots and commercial media may be rare, the two can coexist within a more layered informationscape, each holding the other accountable for its abuses, each scanning the other for potentially valuable content that might otherwise fall through the cracks. Traditional media may no longer exert quite the same authority in their traditional role as the gatekeepers that determine what information gets circulated, but known mass-media brands still exert considerable power as agenda setters and as publicists, heightening awareness of key developments. For instance, many of those who were most engaged with the Twitter flow from Iran still sought the skills of prominent journalism brands to resolve the conflicting accounts and contradictory information.
Certainly, CNN and other mainstream news agencies were better prepared for the Arab Spring protests because they had revised their internal structures and practices in response to what Iran had taught them about the changing media landscape. Meanwhile, U.S.-based activists have been quick to act on the insights they gained from their own studies and discussions of what happened across the Middle East. And, at the same time, protestors in Cairo and elsewhere felt more empowered by what they perceived as new opportunities to shape public opinion in the West by tapping social media. A networked world increased the exchange of tactics, rhetoric, images, and insights across different movements. Perhaps no image underscored this interconnectedness quite like a widely circulated photograph which showed a protestor in Cairo holding up a sign signaling his support for the labor activists in Madison, Wisconsin.
This cross-cultural connectivity and spread of media content and messages from these various international protests had a heavy influence on the rise of the Occupy movement in the U.S. in fall 2011. Occupy drew inspiration from the Arab Spring, from the labor organizing in Madison, and from a range of social-media-enhanced protests across Europe, from which they took many of its decision-making and communication practices. If the events in the Islamic world had taken place in a context where there was a relatively low density of access to Twitter and other social media, the Occupy movement has suggested how these processes might work in a highly networked culture which has already created an infrastructure for the rapid flow of information within and across groups.
However, Occupy has been not so much a “movement” as we’ve traditionally defined political movements but rather a provocation. If the mainstream media has had difficulty identifying Occupy’s goals, it may be because its central goal is to provoke discussion, to get people talking about things which the U.S. political leadership had refused to address for the past several decades: profound shifts in economic wealth which have created conditions of gross inequality in opportunity, the role of what former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has often called “crony capitalism,” and especially the degree to which economic policies under both Republican and Democratic presidents have been written with more regard for Wall Street than Main Street. Some commentators, including presidential candidate Ron Paul, have drawn strong parallels between the Occupy movement (on the left) and the Tea Party movement (on the right), seeing both as at least partially grassroots, networked responses to the economic downturn. It seems likely that news coverage of the Tea Party helped to inspire and inform participation in Occupy, providing organizers with both positive and negative examples of the role which large-scale political organizing might play in the current technological and cultural context. Some critics might argue that the Tea Party was as much a product of right-wing broadcast media (Fox News, Clear Channel) and conservative think tanks and funding organizations (Koch Brothers) as it was of networked media, though many people within the Tea Party movement would contest such a narrative, seeing these groups as seeking to capitalize on earlier grassroots successes at mobilizing the public. Some groups (especially libertarians) have participated in both the Tea Party and Occupy movements, seeing—as Paul has—common concerns between the two movements, especially around the federal government’s bailout of failing banks.
Occupy’s refusal to designate a central spokesperson meant that all the participants had the opportunity—and obligation—to help shape the flow of their message through their personal and collective networks. These groups are refusing to create a simple unified message of the kind that is familiar from “disciplined,” hierarchical, and established political movements. Rather, they seek to multiply the messages and to expand the range of different media framings so that they may speak to a broader range of different participants. No one piece of media reaches everyone; rather, media is produced quickly and cheaply and spread widely so that each piece of media produced may speak to a different set of followers. Occupy spread rapidly from site to site, in part because there were so many different channels of communication which protestors could use to share resources and tactics with each other and to get their concerns out to a larger public.
Protestors created a vast range of icons from the movement—appropriating everything from the Guy Fawkes masks from V for Vendetta to images of comic book superheroes which were deployed to signify the 1 percent of the country’s very wealthiest citizens. When a campus policeman pepper sprayed Occupy supporters at the University of California–Davis, his image was quickly appropriated, remixed, and put into circulation. Within days, there were hundreds of mash-ups of the “pepper spray cop,” juxtaposed with famous paintings or movie scenes showing peaceful gatherings or protest groups. As these images circulated both independently and collectively, they increased the general public’s awareness of the cop’s abusive conduct (Memmott 2011).
Malcolm Gladwell has offered perhaps the most widely referenced critique of the idea of “Twitter revolutions,” contrasting networked activism’s reliance on weak ties and informal structures to the risk and mutual commitment that he argues underlay the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Gladwell concludes,
[Twitter Activism] is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. (2010)
Gladwell’s comparison, however, is a faulty one, since it contrasts a single platform of communication (Twitter) with a movement. In practice, Twitter is simply one among many channels through which political communication has occurred within Occupy or the various Arab Spring movements, just as, say, the telephone was one channel among many through which the black churches and the northern Freedom Riders communicated in the 1960s. By drawing such a sharp contrast between online and offline modes of organizing, Gladwell may also be underestimating the “risks” confronted by participants in these networked political movements, whether the protestors in the streets of the Arab world or the undocumented youths who were identifying themselves online and facing deportation as part of campaigns in support of the Dream Act.
This book is less interested in single platforms than in a media or network ecology, which consists of many tools, many networks, many practices, and many communities. In each of these movements, there have been people on the ground who were willing to take risks, and there has been a larger body of supporters who watched and commented on what happened. Meaningful change required both public demonstrations and quieter shifts in public perceptions.
A key question, though, is how porous these channels of communication are and what obstacles exist for the protestors in the streets to get their concerns heard by a larger and more diverse public. The use of Twitter in each of these cases functions first and foremost as a means of amplifying the voices in the streets and reaching those who may never get anywhere near the locus of the protest. In the 1960s, the only way to ensure that the “whole world is watching” was to get your message onto broadcast media. More recent protests have found that their ability to reach outsiders through weak and informal ties has been an important step in gaining greater visibility for their cause, including putting greater pressure on mainstream media to report on the issues under contention.
Acts of grassroots circulation are not inherently political. In fact, most of the examples in this book are not especially resistant in any meaningful sense. However, the capacity to circulate is one which can be deployed more effectively and spontaneously toward political ends when the public is familiar with the tools and infrastructure of circulation, when it has established strong and diverse networks through which to exchange information, and when it has the skills and literacies required to meaningfully share information with others.