by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary, on JANUARY 14, 2013:
Associate Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies Negar Mottahedeh is teaching a seminar at Duke University this semester called Social Movements and Social Media, which traces the evolution of social media from newspapers to the radio to Facebook and Twitter and its role in movements and uprisings.
Mottahedeh conceived the idea for the course after the 2009 post-election crisis in Iran, when protesters used sites such as Twitter, Balatarin (the Iranianbased social network), and YouTube to instantaneously share information and plan their actions.
Over the weekend we did a “virtual” Q & A about her class and her latest research.
Julie Poucher Harbin:: In what area is (geographical and theoretical) your current research on social movements and social media focused ?
Negar Mottahedeh: I continue to work on Iran in my research, but my teaching is more broadly focused. In my Social Media and Social Movements class we cover the Americas, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. I am interested in the long history of media, so my research and teaching also involves a balanced historical take on the uses of other media by social movements and in social uprisings: pamphlets, newsprint, the radio, TV, telex, satellite and so forth.
Q: The role of social media in popular uprisings has been extensively debated ever since the 2009 post-election demonstrations in Iran, but especially during the Arab Spring. Even before that communications scholars were talking about the role of audio tapes, radio and newspapers in revolutions. You have said that “social media doesn’t create movements, but it allows for ease of organization.” Explain this.
A: Commentators critical of the term “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolution” as applied to the Iranian uprising in 2009 and the Arab uprisings in 2011 have largely taken those terms to mean that social media was somehow causal — the seed of the revolts. These terms are quite a superficial take on the function of social media and its uses by communities and activists.
In a global culture where people and their knowledge are linked through social media and an interactive web, it would seem obvious that large groups of people would get their information about what is happening in their world from the internet and similarly that if this source is cut, as in the case of Iran or Egypt, that people will come out of their homes to find out what is in fact going on. This then leads them to protest the denial of access by the state, the repression of information, and finally, the abuse of power. That is a sensible and historically accurate causal scenario. But to say that social media such as Twitter made the 2009 uprising possible is nonsense. It allowed for the dissemination of information from one to many and many to many… mostly to many abroad. In some cases social media provided the tools by which people outside of Iran could organize, and thereby support those on the ground who were marching en masse in city streets; protesting a fraudulent presidential election and the denial of their civil liberties.
Q: You have told students of your Social Movements and Social Media class to read Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody.” What is important about this book?
A: Clay Shirky’s book is a wonderful place to begin our discussions about the uses of social media by groups. The book gives really solid and very common examples of how groups use social media to convene around common interests and disseminate needful and timely information at a speed and a scale humanity has never experienced… until now.
Q: How successful have governments been at squashing or censoring social media, particularly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube? Have governments made it more difficult for protest movements to organize themselves?
A: If social protests movements were only reliant on social media then one would think that censorship would make it more difficult, yes. But movements with any substance and vision rarely rely solely on social media for their organization and activism. And why would they? Their constituency is rarely made up of those who have access to social media on a regular basis anyway. In any case, it is a fundamental quality of those who have suffered any form repression to find other ways and means. Those whose aim is to right wrongs, do. And so it is also with the way in which social movements deal with the censorship of social media by repressive regimes. They find ways. Always.
Q: Can you comment on the relatively recent trend of using social media as a tool in warfare? (For example, the use of social media (mainly Youtube and Twitter) during the recent flare-up in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians this Fall.
A: Professor Rebecca Stein in Cultural Anthropology at Duke has been writing in depth on the uses of social media by the Israeli state and Israeli defense for some time. Social media has not only been a part of the government’s public image (e.g. YouTube Q & A’s with Prime Minister Netanyahu) but also an integral part of the defense. Israel has been planning for some time now to place soldier-bloggers out in the field as part of the defense. These “trends” emphasize (for a public unaware perhaps of history) that publicity is part and parcel of the quest for territorial expansion. Historically, it wasn’t just newspapers and newsreel, but cinema industries around the world were established as a part of war efforts in the modern era. The Iran-Iraq war had filmmakers in the Iranian defense. So the trend is hardly new. The use of social media in warfare represents a more powerful evolution of a weapon among other, perhaps less powerful, and more destructive weaponry.
Q: A study done this past summer by Digital Daya revealed that 75 percent, or three out of four heads of state, are on the social media site Twitter. The new figures represent an annual compound growth rate (CAGR) of 93% in the number of heads of state and national governments on Twitter since the company started tracking this data in 2010. I also find it interesting that out of the top 10 world leaders (by number of followers) on Twitter, half (as of June) were in the Americas, three in the Middle East and Turkey, and one in Russia. There were no European or African leaders in the top 10. What do you make of this data?
A: I think that until social media becomes old news, a common medium such as the radio or the newspaper, we can’t really make an accurate observation on the basis of such numbers. For now, having a presence on Twitter is a sign of accessibility and a measure of one’s democratic values and that seems to be good for the public image of any government and world leader. With its reach and speed, Twitter is also a great site to counter allegations against the misuse of power by the state and to enter into debates with the public in times of crisis, as the Israeli government has been known to do. European heads of state may have less issues of this nature to clear up at the moment and African leaders have other, established, and more powerful media in their service. These vary from state to state: the cellphone, video, word of mouth, etc.
Q: Do you find it challenging being a social media presence yourself? Do you enjoy being on Twitter and having a blog and what do you get out of it?
A: Social media is just one part of my ordinary everyday life. I use it as part of my teaching, and from time to time I use it to engage in discussions on topics for which I may not have close interlocutors on the home front, or sometimes when I am looking for a range of views. I encourage my students to do this as well… to find their peers and others who share their unique interests who live elsewhere. Mostly though,Twitter is where I post on my own interests: these days, food (mostly sushi), yoga, politics, music, visual culture and dance, and I find that my followers enjoy and benefit from these posts as much I do from theirs. I have been on Twitter for many years (almost since the beginning) and some of the people I follow are now old friends… a social circle of sorts. I meet up with some of them when I travel. As for my blog, it is dedicated to my ruminations around technology and activism and I like to use it to test out ideas I may develop more fully in academic articles or elsewhere in print. The feedback is instant and I find that electrifying!
Negar Mottahedeh tweets at @negaratduke. Her current research and writing on the uses of social media in uprisings for civil liberties and equality around the world supplement her engagement as blogger and activist. Mottahedeh is also the editor of a new book, “Abdu’l Baha’s Journey West: The Course of Human Solidarity”, which is about the impact of the early 20th century Iranian visionary on the emergent civil rights and suffrage movements in America and on his prescription for a lasting peace only three years before the outbreak of WWI. It will be published by Palgrave in April 2013.
The frontpage photo is one that Negar Mottahedeh likes to use in presentations: Supporters of main challenger and reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi shout amidst a festive atmosphere at an election rally at the Heidarnia stadium in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, June 9, 2009. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Mottahedeh discusses Iran and social media with Duke University’s Office Hours Program, February 2, 2010