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December, 2012


In this issue... Special Focus on Social Networks in Iran's Elections

A New Interface for Public Opinion: Role of New Media in Iran Elections

by Jamileh Dastmardi, PhD

In general terms, it would be interesting to know about the role of new media in elections. It should be confessed, however, for there is a lack of apt and precise academic statistics even in the case of traditional media such as TV. In Iran, there are 46.2 million eligible voters, but if one narrowed the analytical lenses, one can notice that the distribution of computers as telecommunication infrastructure is different among urban and rural areas. Hence, there is no possibility of exact evaluation of voting behavior. (Continued below...)










New Interface... (continued)

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One major new medium, that is the Internet, is also not distributed equally. The new media has been shaped by our yesterday, and it exists in our daily social interactions today. The turning point of its role was highlighted in the incidents happening before and after the recent presidential election, which in sober terms was called "The Twitter Revolution". Technologies of new media played a fundamental role in the incident before and after the election. The social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Weblogs, were small windows to show the world the protest of Iranian people.

Reflecting upon what is suggested, it can be claimed that the Internet may change the nature of political discourse in the future.

In the past eight years the number of Internet users has increased by 50%. Due to Internet oriented research, called "Opennet", nearly 35% of the Iranian population is using Internet. As a result, the usage of Internet in Iran is significantly more than the average of 26% in the Middle East. The new media has not only changed the nature of civic engagement and their participatory behavior in Iran, but also political campaign behavior all over the world. Despite the significance of such new technology in election and related events, there exists less information about their function.

Robert Faris, the Director of Berkman Center of Internet and Society, Harvard University, believes that, in spite of the important role of new media in election and its following incidents, international radio and TV channels played a more important role.

The new media are powerful instruments which, despite fast transfer of information, lack the precision and trustworthiness that traditional media possess. In some countries the new media are still controlled noticeably. Due to the centralized nature of social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, and Flickr, they can easily be heavily censored. Facebook, for example, was used for organizing the movement before, and in the time of election, but after the elections, most social networks were blocked by the government.

Some social media can hardly be controlled. For instance, due to the non-centralized nature of Twitter and text messaging, government control seemed to be difficult. If new media are allowed to flourish, costs will be reduced and there will be an increase in citizen engagement via social movements. During the protest movement in Iran, new media helped to unite by supporting protestors from outside the country and were successful in publicizing events taking place inside via new media. Andrew Lewman, the Executive Director of The Tor Project, has introduced free software for protecting the privacy of online users, and this has about half million users today, but up to 80% of traffic has been banned in Iran after the elections.

Moreover, Lewman has added that The Tor Project creates a platform for users to access a virtual network of channels, and during the unstable situation in Iran, the users of this project were roughly 300 thousand to 500 thousand per day.

According to the high popularity of Internet (30-40%), the Iranian government did not ban the Internet totally for the sake of not losing face. Generally, Tor was used for over the border communication and access to contact sites.  Also, Google map was viewed to unify the news of activities and health condition of protestors. Primarily, this allowed citizens to break the limitations imposed by government. Tor, in fact, recorded the highest number of users from Iran during the Internet blockage.

Sam Sadaei, an Iranian – American blogger, on Huffington Post, declared that the people should consider the incident happening in Iran as a war between conservatives and reformers. However, the best explanation would be to call it a public relations conflict. After the election result, the public relations conflict started to manage the influence and process of incidents. Depending on traditional media, government tried to blame and condemn the opposition, who gained the opportunity to express their ideas publically despite the past situation, and successfully aired their voices through the new medium.

The new media played quite an important role in Iran because they do not monopolize information like traditional media. The photos and videos of protestors were shot with digital cameras and mobile phones and uploaded on YouTube.

Furthermore, Iranians took advantage of Twitter to link the weblogs and websites containing visual content from protesters. Facebook, noticeably, played an important role in collecting help and support for protesters.  New media technologies including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Mobile phones, played a significant role in wide distribution of information about protests in Iran. Albeit widespread, these technologies are quite new in Iran. Hence they did not play a critical role in protests. But the citizens had too much trust in the newly established media to truly understand the protest.

The new media has its own strengths and weaknesses. These, in comparison with the traditional media, are more advantageous. Censoring and blocking them is more difficult for the government as compared with blocking traditional media. When foreign media broadcasters were being expelled, the new medium used photos and videos that could not be achieved elsewhere. Thus new media essentially had a more democratic nature while traditional media may just keep on covering various stories.

Citizens can discuss their important issues in the new media. However, on the other side of the coin, the new media can be highly unreliable. Although transferring data is fast, it can lack precision and trustworthiness. The new media is not exempted from censorship. In some countries they are controlled significantly. Due to their centralized nature, social networks are susceptible to censorship.    The government can block a social network on the spot.  But some characteristics of new media made it difficult to find the source of information. Also censoring it is likely to bring target countries into disrepute, and with announcement of technologies, state censorship is becoming difficult.

In summary, we shall witness the role of new media in social movements in the future. And the role of these media will highly depend on the rate that government will allow them to flourish.

Jamileh is a Ph.D. student in Communication

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Publishing New Writers,

December, 2012 (no. 1312)


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