Interesting piece by Brian McNair on social media and journalism in post-election Iran:
Current events in Iran exemplify what I called in a 2006 book, ‘cultural chaos’. A ruling authoritarian elite struggles to maintain control of information and political dominance in a world where online media and satellite news threaten to make everything it does visible to a global audience.
Internally, Iran’s protesters Google, Twitter and Facebook around the censorship, countering the propaganda which fills state media coverage and organising their opposition. The oppressive order of Islamic fundamentalism becomes the dynamic chaos of emerging democracy, and culture – communication – is the catalyst for that phase change.
As I write, the outcome of the protests is uncertain. But there is no doubt that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hold on power has never been more fragile. The Iranian state tries to disrupt email and social networking sites. Mobile phone networks are blocked and satellite dishes confiscated, but those attempts merely add more fuel to the story as reported by a globalised, always-on media, stirring up further revulsion and anger at home and abroad.
In this sense, the globalisation of news media, and the explosion of online means of communication which are, by design, very difficult for authoritarian regimes to control or destroy, is a democratising force. It erodes the barriers which those regimes erect around their countries, breaks their quarantine, raises the global political cost of their behaviour. It brings chaos, but in a good way, the way that leads to the birth of something better.
The presence of new kinds of media is not enough in itself to guarantee progressive change, or to create the public mood which demands it. In the case of Iran, the arrival of Barack Obama and his conciliatory overtures appears to have strengthened the opposition. The parlous state of the Iranian economy has been a domestic issue for a long time, and the sheer extremism of Ahmadinejad’s version of Islam can only provoke resistance in a country with Iran’s cosmopolitan history.
But the impact of these underlying factors is amplified by the globalised media, which give them heightened visibility and force. Everything plays out before a global audience, in BBC and CNN bulletins, or on Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera. Iranians themselves, many of them, are part of that audience, and take strength from the knowledge that the eyes of the world are upon them as they fight for personal freedom and human rights.
This is what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago, when Kate Adie and her media colleagues covered first the pro-democacy protests, then the massacre which followed. The Chinese communists won that battle, but they lost the war, and to this day are still shamed by their actions.
The global media were in Eastern Europe in the velvet revolutions, and in Moscow during the failed coup of 1991, lending their publicity to popular uprisings.
But in Iran, two decades on, there is another factor at work. Alongside the professional journalists and foreign correspondents are armies of ordinary people, armed only with mobile phones and digital cameras, Twitter and Skype accounts, Facebook and MySpace profiles.
While John Simpson and the rest are locked in their hotels, effectively prisoners of the regime, young Iranians keep a flow of uncensored news pouring out of the country – citizen journalists if you like. They are connected to the world beyond, in a way that previous generations of protesters have not been.
Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism & Communication at the University of Strathclyde.