Last Thursday, Iran executed 23-year-old Mohsen Shekari for protesting against the regime. This week, the regime killed Majidreza Rahnavard (23). Iranians have been rising up against the regime since September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after having been arrested by the morality police.

Social media is playing an important role in the protests. People are sharing images and reports from Iran on Instagram. For example, one video shows a mother receiving the unexpected, unimaginable news that her son has been executed.

The video has been watched more than half a million times and retweeted more than a thousand times. The US weekly magazine Newsweek covered the story. People across the globe retweet or post broken hearts or calls for action. But isn’t there anything more tangible that we can do? And is it helpful that such images are being viewed throughout the world?

As an assistant professor in the Media & Communication department of the Erasmus School of History, Culture & Communication, Delia Dumitrica is researching the role of social media and digital technologies in protests. How are protests changed by social media and digital technologies? “Protests have taken on more global proportions.”

What role are digital technologies having in the protests in Iran?

“That’s an extremely broad question. I think there are two aspects to it. On the one hand, they make it easy for the Western world to see what’s going on. They’re an important source of information for us. On the other, there’s the risk of misinformation, which spreads with relative ease on social media. The antidote to this, still, is to fall back on traditional media.

“When I watch the protests in Iran, what stands out for me is what I term ‘slide-show activism’. Major accounts with millions of followers post slide shows containing information about the protests. They have considerable reach. Here, too, I see a significant link with traditional media.”

What is the role of traditional media? What does that link look like?

“You’ll often find that the information that the people behind these accounts base their posts on stems from traditional media. They’ll share a summary of what Reuters or the AFP have written. Those media outlets have the resources for and are used to performing fact checks. If they make mistakes, there are rules in place on how they can go about correcting those mistakes.”

So what is the added value of social media?

“Social media enables us to see things we wouldn’t otherwise see if we were only consuming traditional media. Journalists who’d struggle to get into the country also use it as a source and then look for additional sources to verify the information they find.”

Does it create a feeling of proximity? For example, I’m following someone from Iran who lives in the Netherlands and whose nephew was arrested by the authorities. 

“Absolutely. It can feel closer to home and you can end up feeling more emotionally involved in what’s going on elsewhere. The situation feels more relevant to you and becomes more personal when you read posts from people whose family members have gone missing.”

Is there any point in me sharing such messages within my network?

“Disseminating such messages can be important, because journalists use social media too. If a post like that is shared a lot, they might come across it and subsequently verify that information for the purposes of their articles. What’s more, such posts have historiographical value, as they constitute witness accounts of what’s happening and serve as a record for posterity. Hopefully, they’ll help us hold those in power to account.

“But I’m not going to offer a one-size-fits-all answer. Follow your heart and your own judgement – and above all, avoid spreading disinformation.”

What is social media use like in Iran?

“It doesn’t necessarily reflect society. 84 percent of Iranians use the Internet – which is quite a lot – 30 percent use Instagram and 12 percent use Twitter.”

em-mobiele telefoon activisme sociale media politie – Bas van der Schot
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

The regime can also use social media for its own repressive agenda or even to track people down. Don’t digital technologies actually present a threat to activists?

“It’s the authorities that present a clear threat to activists or citizens in Iran and it’s always a cat-and-mouse game in that respect. Those in power have far more resources at their disposal to seize control of digital technologies and use them for their own benefit. It takes tremendous courage on the part of those young women and activists to publish photos of themselves without a hijab for an international audience.

“You can tell that Iranians are adapting. What strikes me is that plenty of women are having themselves photographed from behind, so that they can’t be identified. That’s the iconic image that Time magazine put on the cover when announcing its heroes of the year.”

What are the most significant changes in the nature of protests thanks to social media and digital technologies?

“Activism is no longer a local affair. Activists aren’t restricted to taking action at the local level. In the event of censorship, they can bypass that local level with local interested parties and media. Social media enables activists to make their mark, including in the international media. It also makes it easier for activists to reach a global audience. That global audience can then engage in conversation with those activists and end up being influenced by them.”

Could you give an example?

“This was evident in anti-corruption protests in Romania in 2017. The Romanian diaspora, which was in close contact with people in Romania, spoke with politicians in the Netherlands and the European Parliament and asked them to raise the matter with the Romanian government. It also raised funds to help local activists.

“You can see digital technologies amplifying the role of the diaspora in protests. The contact is extremely direct. Moreover, the people in the diaspora translate important messages and share them within their own network in their new home countries. This gives other people the chance to get involved in fundraising.”

The protests in Iran lack a name and a clear leader. Another movement without a clear leader is Extinction Rebellion. Is that a modern phenomenon?

 “Organisations seem to be increasingly horizontal. There’s still leadership, but more with regard to topics within the protest movement. You’ll see some people take the lead when it comes to organising protests, others when it comes to communication and others still when it comes to encouraging participation. These things are happening more behind the scenes.

“That can be to the activists’ advantage. We saw that in the civilian protests in Russia after the elections in 2011 and 2012, too, at least while there was still strong opposition in that country. The horizontal nature of the civilian protests made it harder for the Russian authorities to crack down on them. When the authorities succeeded in arresting a pivotal figure, another one would step forward and take their place. Social media makes that decentralisation possible.”

em-activisme social media twitter2 – Bas van der Schot
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Are we living in an age of increased civilian involvement or in fact in an age of passivity?

“A prominent idea in political science is that citizens have become more passive and politically apathetic. Some academics who study voter turnout have seen falls therein. This is problematic, I know. But as a researcher who studies digital technologies and citizens’ activism, that passivity isn’t obvious to me. On the contrary, I see strong resolve among citizens to do something about the political context in which they’re living, to make an impact and to make their voices heard.

“It’s just that they’re adapting their methods. And when it comes to those methods, digital technologies have become a key weapon in their armoury.”

How so?

“In various ways. For example, I’ve studied parents in British Columbia, Canada. There was a risk that their children wouldn’t be able to attend school due to strikes involving teachers who were negotiating with the government. The government wasn’t budging and so the parents mobilised and petitioned the local authorities to step in and talk with the teaching staff.

“Via both social media and personal offline contacts, parents came up with creative means of pressuring politicians to talk to the teachers. For instance, some parents organised ‘play-dates’ bringing their children and doing fun things with them in front of the elected officials’ offices.

“Drives to get out the vote are another product of these new forms of activism online. Not necessarily for a specific candidate, but just to make the most of your right to vote. We’ve seen a lot of this in the USA. Another development is that people involved in movements are going on to become political candidates. That was the case with people behind the yellow vest protests in France.

“But it’s not all a bed of roses. Not everyone fights for social justice. Conservative or opportunistic people also employ the same dynamics. IS propaganda had a big impact because of the way in which IS used social media. Repressive states also use social media to their own repressive ends.

“That’s why the courage that young women and activists are showing in Iran and the risks they’re taking are incredible. You have to hand it to them.”

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