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The Tyranny of Social Media

By Behnam Zoghi and Jalal Shahinitiran

Source: Jeem Khorasan magazine

In the political and social movements of the past decade, social media platforms and instant messaging applications proved themselves to be players of great importance. These new technologies not only can serve as a means of communication, but, as we will elaborate, they also play a major role in the formation of protests and the outcome of movements. But how do different platforms alter the course of a movement? We would like to assess the impact of different types of social media on political events. In its typology social media is not monolithic, and they do not operate the same way. We argue that social media outlets are not the same, and hence, do not have identical impact on social processes.

There have been many studies showing the effects of (social media) in-group and out-group biases on individual decision making. Therefore, the availability or popularity of a particular social media platform among members of any movement can have a huge impact on outcome. The fact that about 48 million Iranians today use Telegram, a 40% consumption of Iran's internet bandwidth, calls for an analysis of its role in the recent uprisings across the country.

Comparing the recent demonstrations with those that happened immediately after the 2009 Iranian presidential election (referred to as the "Green Movement"), confirms our belief that different social media outlets, have different results. Even though both events lacked any official media or leader; they were both organized through social media and boycotted by National Television of Iran. The critical difference lies in the form of social media employed by the mass of protesters. In the Green Movement era, Facebook was primarily used by people to coordinate the demonstrations and to debate related issues.

However, the disenfranchised communities currently use the Telegram application as the forum for discussion and organization.

On Twitter, for instance, one does encounter diversity of opinion, and it is easy to engage in debates with people of a different mindset. However, the use of Telegram, which is an instant messaging service, requires one to join groups or channels that reinforce one's beliefs and political biases. Facebook, in our opinion, is something in-between. The aforementioned process of reinforcement of biases can easily be observed by monitoring the trend of events that began last December and continued until mid-January. The demonstrations began in the city of Mashhad to protest unemployment, recession and president Rouhani's austerity policies that have been labeled a Neoliberal agenda by his opponents. Soon after, extremists got the upper hand and began to question the whole establishment and even shouted slogans in support of the former Reza "Shah." Furthermore, in their slogans, the protesters criticized and insulted reformist figures such as Khatami, the former president of Iran, who had asked the protesters to stay reserved and steer clear of violence.

This situation stunned many analysts who thought that the grassroots had learned from the 1979 revolution and other historical experiences to abhor violence and pursue their demands through nonviolent means. Here, we propose that this unexpected phenomenon can largely be attributed to the specific types of social media communication used by the protesters. Back in 2009 when Facebook was the dominant means of communication, after chanting "Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran" -- considered an extremist slogan by a large sector of activists -- a public discussion took place on Facebook. This slogan was meant to demand that the government concentrate on the needs and problems of the Iranian people, and not those of the Palestinians and Lebanon. This was construed by many that the Iranian people were ignoring the struggles of the Palestinians and others in the region. However, because of the structured dialogue-process on Facebook, the slogan was soon moderated to demand the better allocation of national resources, while respecting support for the oppressed nations.

This social media model highlights the process by which all positions were moderated and everyone could engage in public debate. Another paragon of debates as such can be observed in December 27, 2009, when governmental suppression was met by violence (a police station was set on fire and a police van was overturned) by angry protesters taking advantage of the religious ceremony of Ashoura to chant their demands. This type of violent reaction was harshly criticized by the major supporters of The Green Movement and thus such extreme actions stopped. Once again, Facebook was the main channel of discussions and public discourse.

On the other hand, using Telegram as social media in December 2017 hindered diverse opinion. Interaction was possible only among closed groups of like-minded people, who reinforced each other's extremist views. Receiving identical feedback from a closed loop of ideas not only reinforces everyone's position, it also helps those group members, who are not necessarily representative of society at large, to project their own thinking. In addition,Telegram provides its users with blog-like forums called channels, which unlike Facebook and Twitter provides one-way communication-- subscribers can only receive information sent by administrators without room for two-way communication, disagreement or argument. Your options are limited to accepting whatever you receive in the channel, or leaving it.

It is worth mentioning, that even though Twitter and Facebook are filtered by government authorities, many people are very active on these platforms,especially on Twitter. Still, this community of Iranians on Twitter is by no means representative of Iranian society at large. Interestingly, some Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of followers choose interesting tweets about an issue and publish them on Telegram. This form of communication inevitably leads to the false impression of 'I think like everyone else' and the fallacious conclusion of, 'therefore I am right'. In order to increase the number of subscribers for their channels, administrators are encouraged either knowingly or unknowingly to post extremist content. This may include fake news and / or violence-inciting material).

In this way, the specific type of social media radicalized the atmosphere and led to violent uprisings which failed to mobilize major segments of society who, according to high rate of unemployment and inflation, probably were struggling with the same issues. As argued, the under use of Facebook and Twitter (two-way communication) by the public would lead to a limited public engagement and civil discourse. On the other hand, the use of only Telegram - one-way communication- would encourage sensationalist and extremist outcome.

About the authors:

  • Behnam Zoghi, is a staff writer for IranFarda monthly magazine in Iran.
  • Jalal Shahinitiran, is a researcher in technology studies.


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