Global Solidarity 2.0
04 Aug 2009 19:33
Information Revolution: Protests in Iran continue to reverberate worldwide.
By NERI ZILBER in New York | 4 August 2009
Sepideh, a 23-year old Iranian student, held her cell phone up in the air so her friend in Tehran could hear the chants: "Down with Khamanei! Down with Khamanei!"
The source of the commotion was many time zones away from Iran, in the middle of Broadway in New York City on a sunny Saturday afternoon. About one thousand protestors of all ages, the majority women, had gathered to stand in solidarity with the Iranian people.
United For Iran, the grassroots, non-partisan group that organized this truly global event, wanted the world "to bear witness" to the abuses perpetrated against the Iranian people by their own government. Indeed, on that same Saturday, July 25th, demonstrations took place in more than ninety other cities across the globe.
Snaking its way through the wide chasms of midtown Manhattan, from Times Square to the United Nations, the demonstration wouldn't have been out of place in central Tehran. There were the giant placards, asking "Where is my Vote" and demanding "Freedom"; pictures of Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi; ubiquitous "V" signs and organized chants in Farsi; and everywhere one looked, the color green -- green banners, green t-shirts, green sun-dresses, even the sewage water on the sides of one street shone, inexplicably, effervescent green.
As political pressure, this "global day of action" will most likely not affect much action. Trying to influence policy in the UN or Western capitals via street protests is a thankless task -- the massive demonstrations, numbering in the millions, prior to the 2003 Iraq War is a sad testament to this fact. And the Iranian regime would respond to increased international intrusion and sanction the way it always has -- defiantly and harshly, like a coked-up gorilla told that it's time for bed.
Rather, the real utility of the protests was as political theatre -- digital theatre to be more exact, merged instantaneously onto the information superhighway for all the world, especially Iranians, to see.
This is as it should be. Sepideh, the Iranian student, explained that young Iranians around the world intuitively harnessed the power and potential of the internet to communicate and spread news and images about the upheaval back home.
Facebook groups were set up, videos of events taking place in Iran were uploaded to YouTube, and a constant stream of information was disseminated via Twitter. As many analysts and media critics have observed, the June 12 Iranian election and its violent aftermath marked a significant watershed in the influence that new media technologies could have on international politics.
The next logical step, according to the organizers of United For Iran, was to coordinate the various local Facebook groups outside of Iran into one global movement. The intention from the outset was to reciprocate the courage and ingenuity exhibited by the opposition inside Iran, by holding these protests and then uploading images and videos onto the organization's website, Facebook, and YouTube.
One of the volunteer organizers of the New York protest, an Iranian doctoral student from New York University named Hadi, emphasized repeatedly that the movement was grassroots, homegrown, and organic; that is to say, the images were going to be uploaded organically via demonstrators and observers themselves. One had only to look at the army of digital cameras personally deployed on the day to see that this central objective would be easily met. To make sure, though, the organizers gave out the e-mail address of United For Iran to at least two independent digital "film" crews covering the protest.
What appears to be common sense to those of us who can't go ten minutes without checking our Facebook accounts is nothing short of revolutionary in the incrementally slow field of international politics.
Consider the reality: A protest movement born half-way around the world is replicated almost exactly -- with the same green accouterments and chants -- in cities on every continent and on the same day, due almost entirely to the visual imagery and sounds from Iran that we have come to know so well. For their part, United For Iran organized these protests with the object purpose of relaying these images to their countrymen back home.
Hadi Ghahemi, of the non-governmental organization Iran Human Rights, reported that the demonstration in San Francisco was transmitted live over the internet. "When the San Francisco rally organizers announced that the rally was being broadcast live in Iran," Ghahemi writes, "the participants screamed and cheered to make it clear to their brothers and sisters who were watching them that this day was for them."
The power of these new media platforms and technologies not only made this two-way communication possible, instantaneously and across oceans, but it will undoubtedly have an impact on people's perceptions, and ultimately, on policy. As Roger Cohen put it when contrasting America's continued intention to engage Iran with past rapprochements with Russia and China: "[T]he bloodshed then -- of an altogether different dimension -- was not being YouTubed around the globe."
The simple fact that an Iranian expatriate, Sepideh, could communicate in real time with her friend back in Tehran as she walked down a New York street is, in political terms, groundbreaking. Distances and borders wither away; information, imagery, and yes, support, become immediate and literally near to hand.
With her friend still on the line listening, the protestors switched chants. "Don't be afraid, we're all together," the crowd bellowed. Through the influence of new media technology, this wasn't merely a cliche bandied about a localized street protest. In all its twenty-first century glory, it was actually proving to be true.
Neri Zilber is a writer on international politics based in New York City.