The Revolution Will Be Tweeted: Activism in the Age of User Generated Content
The images coming out of the aftermath of the stolen election in Iran
have ranged from inspiring to horrifying. Photos and videos depict
streets flooded with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. There
also are the visual results of such bold acts—those beaten and
bloodied being tended to by their compatriots. With professional
journalists sidelined by Iranian officials, much of this media is
being produced by amateur journalists and distributed via the
internet. Despite the extraordinary measures taken by the Iranian
government to restrict information flow, grassroots communications
continue. Cell phone service is cut, the movement of international
journalists is restricted, and internet sites are blocked. Yet the
pictures, videos and blog reports keep coming. Each a testament to
the power of mixing human will with advanced technology.
Iranian oppositionists have been able to do this through a variety of innovative tactics. One is the use of internet proxies. These proxies allow internet users in Iran to connect to friendly computers through out the world in order to post information to the web. In addition, the social networking site, Twitter, has also proven extraordinarily valuable. Twitter allows users to post mini-blogs of up to 140 characters, called “Tweets.” Updates about demonstrations, news from the streets and links to photos and videos have all tweeted their way past government censors. Twitter is, unlike say Facebook, decentralized. Each individual Twitter site is connected to a network of other sites. Users can post without ever going to a central Twitter home page.
Ok, so why hasn’t the Iranian government just turned off the internet completely? The answer was provided on a recent edition of All Things Considered—since there is such a high level of internet use by all sectors of Iranian society, turning it off would bring everything to a standstill. A kind of digital general strike. This is the social power that opposition organizers are leveraging. The actions of the censors are just minor roadblocks. In the end, Ahmadinejad needs the internet as much as the protesters do.
The street protests in Iran are not the first international events to use the internet to globalize struggles. Youtube video releases introduced the world to the recent G20 demonstrations in London and the anarchist-led uprisings in Greece. Viewers could watch the dignified speech of Tony Benn in Trafalgar Square or the successful anarchist arson of the main Christmas tree in Athens. Internet resources have become fundamental not only to the new globalized economy, but also to social protest.
Cyber-protest had a powerful beginning. In 1999, WTO protestors in Seattle used the internet to release updates and to project on the ground actions to the world. Strategically placed video cameras brought internet viewers into the streets of Seattle to witness running battles between police and demonstrators. A network of de-centralized alternative media sources developed out of this event, including the Indymedia network. These networks, designed specifically for the purposes of publishing user generated content, are meant to circumvent mainstream media sources. They have become a main source for communication amongst activists. Today, mainstream developers such as You Tube, Facebook and Twitter have adapted many of these innovations and are presenting corporate-owned user-directed mass alternatives.
There may, however, be a downside to all this information sharing. This came to head during the recent student takeovers in New York City, of The New School and New York University. Internet organizing certainly played a useful role in the moments leading to the occupation and the organization of solidarity demonstrations during the events. However, live streams from inside both occupations revealed internal debates and the unpreparedness of some of the occupiers. In one instance, a New School occupier, returning to his dorms for a shower, used You Tube to share a summary of the occupiers’ debates about defending themselves against the police. Foes in the administration and the New York Police Department were one click away from this information. A communications strategy for activists that carefully considers the potential audiences of their electronic media is clearly needed. Not all exposure is necessarily desired.
In the end, there is still no substitute for good old face-to-face organizing. Yet, it is comforting to know that when the time comes to organize, a world of sympathizers is just an upload away. So, readers might take some time out to send a tweet out to a pro-democracy demonstrator in Iran or even upload a video of your latest protest. The world awaits you.