Most residents of the Islamic Republic don’t use Google, Yahoo or Bing, don’t know whether Firefox, Safari, Chrome or Explorer is better and have no friends on Facebook or MySpace.
And they don’t use Twitter, but that’s where their revolution is happening.
In a country where social networks exist in neighborhoods, where people write each other letters by hand and where political protests happen on the street, a cadre 0f activists have chosen the internet as the space to market their cause. Iranains have been pouring out into public squares for months, organizing unauthorized anti-government demonstrations and bringing their grievances to the fore of the country’s political scene by force of their numbers. Protesters scream, weave signs, trample each other and face tear gas and arrest. They are voting with their feet and placing their bodies at risk for an ideal. The fight is physical. It’s real.
US and international media have been covering these events since they exploded in mid-June. But as the the government has tried to crack down by expelling foreign journalists from the country, focus has turned from field reports on scrappy protesters braving the army’s wrath to broadcasts of Iranian blogs, twitter feeds and YouTube videos describing the horrors of the ayatollahs’ regime and the reasons for the demonstrations, the most famous of which is the video of Neda, a young protester, being killed by government forces. Headlines such as “The Revolution Will be Twitterized” have shown up on US cable channels and the video of Neda garnered attention as much because of the fact that it was on YouTube as because of its brutality.
US media emphasize that what makes this activism unique is that it has extended beyond those on the ground and has organized online, and that online movement was the subject of a recent event at the American Jewish Committee in New York–where speakers from Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists spoke about the significance of Iranian internet dissent.
The speakers said that the move to the web represents a change in how activism will materialize from now on but emphasized that the online revolution is not the Iranians’ revolution. Internet is a luxury there, not a necessity and the only Iranians who read the blogs and Tweets are either exiles or part of a growing but still small–and restricted–internet community in the country.
But maybe the intended audience for the online revolution isn’t in Iran; maybe it’s here and in Europe and everywhere else where we take freedom of speech and internet access for granted. Part of living in an information age is the ability to think locally and act globally, to take your particular cause and make it relevant to people half a world away from you. Perhaps the Iranian bloggers have realized that as impossible as their cause may seem, the democratic world can’t ignore it if they shove it in our faces.
So we see it on our RSS feeds, on our Facebook profiles and on YouTube. The Iranian internet revolutionaries have succeeded in drawing world attention to the horrors of the regime, in showing us that the ideals they fight for on the street are the ones we live by.
But they’ve also shown us that there are different ways to fight, that ideas can survive in the face of tear gas, guns and bombs. Part of what’s admirable about the Iranian online movement is that it’s a war of words, an alternative of sorts to armed revolution.
And so as the plight of Iran comes to our homepages it’s easy for us to talk about fighting fire with fire, to talk about planes, missiles and targeted strikes. And in the worst of cases that may prove to be the answer, but before we resort to it let’s remember that the Iranians themselves are trying opposition of a different kind.