How #iranelection Transformed the Public Sphere

[ 1 ] June 16, 2014

“What happened during the course of the long months of unrest and the protests online that followed the Iranian presidential election of 2009, changed the whole architecture of journalism, teaching and publishing. What changed too was the way we were using social media — from avatar activism to the functionality of the hashtag as slogan and the role of YouTube in reporting — as we would previously have used the flyer, the two way radio and the telephone.” — Negar Mottahedeh, Associate Professor of Literature at Duke University where she teaches a course on Social Media and Social Movements and The #Selfie. She has a forthcoming book provisionally titled “Hashtag Solidarity.”

by NEGAR MOTTAHEDEH for ISLAMiCommentary on JUNE 16, 2014:

Negar Mottahedeh

Negar Mottahedeh

On June 12, 2009 Iranians went to the polls to elect a new president. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran with 62% of the votes cast. Millions believe that their vote was never counted, however. “Final” numbers had come out before the polls were even closed. Thus began the silent mass protests to reclaim their vote.

While the protests that followed the Iranian election five years ago appeared on mainstream news channels for a brief few days in 2009, #iranelection remained a trending topic for at least six months on Twitter. Within days of the election crisis, social media had become the site of an embodied assembly — a kind of public square — and of collective agitation on a global scale.

Ayatollah Khamenei, during Friday prayers on June 19th, urged an end to the protests by hundreds and thousands of Iranians demanding a new election, saying opposition leaders would be “held responsible for chaos” if they didn’t end the protests.  But his calls went unheeded.

UnknownIn the first days of the Iranian crisis, the hashtag #iranelection was closely associated with the hashtag #CNNfail on Twitter in order to underscore and document on Twitter the failure of CNN to report the scale of a people’s uprising. Recognizing the state of emergency, tweets expressed concern that CNN may have just shut down for the weekend.

See Negar’s Storify on #iranelection HERE

Instead of covering the “breaking news” of a populist unrest in Iran, unprecedented, no less, in recent memory, CNN was, at the time, looping stories about a meth lab run by a grandmother in Nevada; on how unhappy people were with the disappearance of analog television; and on the bankruptcy of the Six Flags amusement park. CNN’s failure was to eschew a report on an international and collective act of popular dissent, in favor of corporate bids for bankruptcy in the US. (Some other outlets did seemingly better).

Meanwhile within the first few days following the elections, foreign journalists in Iran to cover the elections were being rounded up and summarily sent home.

Some, like Maziar Bahari (the Iranian-Canadian Newsweek reporter), were imprisoned for 118 days. Others, like the BBC correspondent John Simpson were briefly arrested after filming in the streets the day after the election. On the ground too, Jim Sciutto, an ABC News correspondent said that the police had confiscated his team’s camera and footage. So Scuitto proceeded to capture the protests and the police violence on his cellphone. He posted his updates on Twitter.

By June 16, 2009, four days after the election, foreign visas were being retracted, most roads were blocked, Tehran hotels were under heightened security, and security forces were under orders to stop foreign press from speaking with Iranians. Anyone on the streets with a digital device, camera or laptop was attacked. No texting was even possible during the first week following the election.

Hackers managed to penetrate Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s websites and enlisted the aid of hackers living outside the country (via Twitter) to help hack into other government sites.

On June 18 Facebook and Google Translate both added Persian as a language option for the increasing number of Persian speakers engaged now with social media, and those outsiders seeking to understand more of what was going on in Iran.

Urgent, unjust and lengthy, the Iranian post-election crisis galvanized and transformed the ecology of everyday life for netizens on social media.

In the mainstream media void, a YouTube video documenting the brutal murder by Iranian security forces of a young woman named Neda Aqa Soltan on June 20, 2009 went viral on Facebook and Twitter — finding its way, a long two days later, onto mainstream television and then on June 23, into a sound bite on Iranian civil liberties by the U.S. President, Barack Obama.

YouTube on CNNThat Obama would reference a YouTube video in his press conference and that CNN would start streaming YouTube coverage of the uprising in its broadcast was a rare occurrence, especially at the time. In any event, CNN was clearly playing catchup with social media after #CNNfail as evidenced when YouTube’s own Twitter account expressed some surprise on June 19 — posting the following tweet: “Hey, turn on your TV! CNN broadcasting live from YouTube on Iran.”

Social Media Transformation

The mass uprising and subsequent government crackdown in the summer of 2009 became the first popular and unremitting revolt to be reported minute by minute by citizen journalists on social media, marking the beginnings of the age that John Postill terms: “an era of ‘viral reality’” — an era in which “our understanding of current affairs is increasingly shaped by digital contents ‘shared’ with fellow users of social media and mobile devices.” YouTube on CNN

The hashtag #iranelection was one of the first uses of a uniform hashtag on any social media; trending for more than six months on Twitter. Twitter also saw a real change in the valuation of standing “friend/follower” networks in relation to citizen reporting and in the engagement with avatar activism. There was a relentless and conscientious viral circulation and repurposing of digital images and YouTube videos like this one, of memes, and of mass participation in flash mobs and text-the-regime campaigns.

This all became part of what one might term “a sensorium commune”—a collective sensorium networked by way of a continual exchange of digital sights and sounds on social media.

Handheld devices were used to capture the unrest on the ground and were seen, too, by many as a form of protection against the violence of the state. These ‘digital eyes and ears’, embraced by the protestors, made the Iranian uprising for justice and civil liberties palpable around the globe. Attached to the eyes of these bodies in revolt and streaming simultaneously to their social networks, the digital lens colluded with the terms of the protest and was implicated by it.

AntiShoppingPosterIran2009Globally, this means of experiencing a protest by ordinary citizens was radically different than images taken from the distant and “unbiased” telephoto lens used to capture earlier revolutions, like the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979.

Changing their avatars, time zones and geo-locations, netizens all over the world for months stood in solidarity with those protesting on the ground. Together they convened an emergent “paradoxical world;” a viral reality that brought together two worlds, online and off.

In a global society, torn by the atomization of the worker and the disintegration of all collective structures in which the needs of the body, the senses of the worker, the rights of the human subject and the civil liberties of the citizen had been disregarded, social media emerged as the embodied site of the collective.

During the Iranian post-election crisis, digital natives demonstrated the reach of the sensorially mediated subject for the first time on a mass scale, thus creating a new space where people could give voice to their moral outrage. These creative, collective, and disorderly formations of protest — mimetic, amorphous and flexible — have challenged both the classical and the neoliberal organizations of power and privilege.

Dozens of mass campaigns emerged out of the 2009 Iranian election crisis — means of expression that were to become part and parcel of the 2011 and 2013 online protests in Iran. This included the high-voltage “plug-in campaign” that in one instance short circuited the national news hour and blacked out areas of the country previously not claimed as participating in the opposition; the green prayer rugs that suddenly appeared at mosques all over Iran during Friday prayers; the “go to the bazar with your family, but don’t shop!” campaign (poster at right); and the creative retooling of ordinary objects and activities into materials for resistance (green pens, green screw drivers, green ink on currency, green arm bands, headbands and finger bands, etc all markers of people’s solidarity with the Green Movement).

We have also seen the repercussions of this social media transformation, which began with #iranelection, in the ways that Twitter was engaged in the Gaza flotilla raid in the spring of 2010; the Egyptian revolution and other regional revolutions that began in 2011; during and after the Gezi protests in Turkey; and in Syria’s ongoing civil war, to give a few examples.

[And we’ve seen the appropriation of Twitter by authority figures (from Pope Frances to US President Obama to Turkish PM Erdogan to Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani), by governments, and by the military and militant groups — for example the Twitter war rooms of the Israeli Defense Forces and the Alqassem Brigades during “Operation Pillar of Defense” in Gaza in 2012, as well as ISIS during its violent takeover of Iraqi cities over the past week (Twitter suspended the ISIS account after it posted mass execution photos this weekend.)]

If any gains were made by the people’s revolution of 2009, it was that in the next poll, in 2013, their vote would be counted. Rouhani, active on Twitter, was the people’s choice, though little has changed in terms of human rights and civil liberties.

Walter Benjamin intimated in his writings on childhood and the mimetic faculty, that the revolutionary’s consciousness is in fact a child’s consciousness: playful, and in play, mimetic and transformational.

It is these acts of mimetic improvisation, memes perhaps, of perception and in-the-moment transformation, acts that are made possible by web 2.0 technologies and social media, that are the map from which the contemporary, fluid, and disorderly formations of protest and revolution gain in character.


Negar Mottahedeh is Associate Professor in the Program in Literature and in the Women’s Studies Program, a cultural critic, and film theorist specializing in interdisciplinary and feminist contributions to the fields of Middle Eastern Studies and Film Studies. She is known for her work on Iranian Cinema, but has also published on the history of reform and revolution, on Bábism, Qajar history, performance traditions in Iran, the history of technology, visual theory, and the role of social media in the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests. 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. She has two monographs: Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema and Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her essay  Karbala Drag Kings and Queens: A history of female ta’ziyehs was published  in Eternal Performance: Taziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals in 2010. Her edited volume `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Journey West: The Course of Human Solidarity was published in April 2013. She tweets @negaratduke. 


This article was made possible (in part) by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See and for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s). 

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary. 


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