The Dark Side of Internet Freedom
In June 2009 thousands of young Iranians—smartphones in their hands—poured into the stuffy streets of Tehran to protest what they believed to be a fraudulent election. Tensions ran high, and some protesters, in an unthinkable offense, called for the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei. But many Iranians found the elections to be fair; they were willing to defend the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if needed. Iranian society, buffeted by the conflicting forces of populism, conservatism, and modernity, was facing its most serious political crisis since the 1979 revolution that ended the much-disliked reign of the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
But this was not the story that most Western media chose to prioritize; instead, they preferred to muse on how the Internet was ushering in democracy into the country. “The Revolution Will Be Twittered” was the first in a series of blog posts published by the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan a few hours after the news of the protests broke. In it, Sullivan zeroed in on the resilience of the popular microblogging site Twitter, arguing that “as the regime shut down other forms of communication, Twitter survived. With some remarkable results.” In a later post, even though the “remarkable results” were still nowhere to be seen, Sullivan proclaimed Twitter to be “the critical tool for organizing the resistance in Iran” but didn’t bother to quote any evidence to support his claim. Only a few hours after the protests began, his blog emerged as a major information hub that provided almost instantaneous links to Iran-related developments. Thousands of readers who didn’t have the stamina to browse hundreds of news sites saw events unfolding in Iran primarily through Sullivan’s eyes. (And, as it turned out, his were a rather optimistic pair.)
It didn’t take long for Sullivan’s version of events to gain hold elsewhere in the blogosphere—and soon enough, in the traditional media as well. Michelle Malkin, the right-wing blogging diva, suggested that “in the hands of freedom-loving dissidents, the micro-blogging social network is a revolutionary samizdat—undermining the mullah-cracy’s information blockades one Tweet at a time.” Marc Ambinder, Sullivan’s colleague at the Atlantic, jumped on the bandwagon, too; for him, Twitter was so important that he had to invent a new word, “protagonal,” to describe it. “When histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown,” wrote Ambinder on his blog. The Wall Street Journal’s Yochi Dreazen proclaimed that “this [revolution] would not happen without Twitter,” while National Public Radio’s Daniel Schorr announced that “in Iran, tyranny has run afoul of technology in the form of the Internet, turning a protest into a movement.”
Soon technology pundits, excited that their favorite tool was all over the media, were on the case as well. “This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media,” proclaimed New York University’s Clay Shirky in an interview with TED.com.
Twitter seemed omnipotent—certainly more so than the Iranian police, the United Nations, the U.S. government, and the European Union. Not only would it help to rid Iran of its despicable leader but also convince ordinary Iranians, most of whom vehemently support the government’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear enrichment, that they should stop their perpetual fretting about Israel and simply go back to being their usual peaceful selves.
seemed like a revolution that the whole world was not just watching
also blogging, tweeting, Googling, and YouTubing. It only took
clicks to get bombarded by links that seemed to shed more light
events in Iran—quantitatively, if not qualitatively—than anything
by what technologists like to condescendingly call “legacy
While the latter, at least in their rare punditry-free moments of
were still trying to provide some minimal context to the Iranian protests,
many Internet users preferred to simply get the raw deal
Twitter, gorging on as many videos, photos, and tweets as they could
Such virtual proximity to events in Tehran, abetted by access
highly emotional photos and videos shot by protesters themselves,
led to unprecedented levels of global empathy with the cause of
Green Movement. But in doing so, such networked intimacy may
also greatly inflated popular expectations of what it could actually
As the Green Movement lost much of its momentum in the months following the election, it became clear that the Twitter Revolution so many in the West were quick to inaugurate was nothing more than a wild fantasy. And yet it still can boast of at least one unambiguous accomplishment: If anything, Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor, a world where technology could be harvested to spread democracy around the globe rather than entrench existing autocracies. The irrational exuberance that marked the Western interpretation of what was happening in Iran suggests that the green-clad youngsters tweeting in the name of freedom nicely fit into some preexisting mental schema that left little room for nuanced interpretation, let alone skepticism about the actual role the Internet played at the time.
From the book: The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011 All rights reserved. CC License does not apply to this extract.
Share this article
Wendy M. Grossman responds to "loopy" statements made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in regards to censorship and encryption.
ORGZine: the Digital Rights magazine written for and by Open Rights Group supporters and engaged experts expressing their personal views
People who have written us are: campaigners, inventors, legal professionals , artists, writers, curators and publishers, technology experts, volunteers, think tanks, MPs, journalists and ORG supporters.