By Donya Alinejad In her latest speech on internet freedom, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the internet the “town square” of the 21st century. Clinton seized on the widespread attention for Facebook during the Egyptian revolution and used the opportunity to reiterate internet-oriented US foreign policy. Just days earlier the Egyptian people had ousted Hosni Mubarak, their dictator of 30 years. Cairo’s Tahrir Square had been occupied by protesters, stained with the blood of the revolution’s martyrs, and gained iconic status as the center of the 21st century’s most populous revolutionary movement. Soon after, protesters in Libya named the Northern Court in Benghazi “Tahrir Square Two.” If these events show us anything, it is that the town square of the 21st century is still, simply, the town square.
It is not the first time Clinton’s language has hyperbolized the role of the internet, thus making her appear severed from reality. Author and scholar, Eyvgeny Morozov, skillfully rebutted her first major speech on internet freedom given in January 2010 on these very grounds, expressing unease at the Cold War imagery she evoked in warnings that “a new information curtain is descending.” Clinton’s latest speech reminds us that the power struggle over new technologies is not limited to the battles over who uses and controls the internet and how. It includes the battles over who gets to define and frame the internet through dominant narratives, and who challenges them.
Perhaps the most widespread and heated contestation of an internet narrative is that of the “Twitter Revolution.” Although it was first used with reference to Moldova, this term enjoyed its peak during the tumultuous aftermath of the Iranian presidential elections of June 2009. With his piece, The Revolution will be Tweeted, Andrew Sullivan was quickly established as a leading proponent of the hype. He eagerly compared the power of the Iranian protesters to the electoral success of President Barack Obama the year prior. The only link seemed to be some broad associations with democratic change and popular associations with social media applications such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, but it certainly caught on.
Down with the “Twitter Revolution”!
Unfortunately, Sullivan not only jumped the gun on Iran, his perspective also obscured the ways the Obama campaign had effectively hijacked users’ online social networks, rather than building them, as documented in Eric Boehlert’s Bloggers on the Bus. Even though Iran’s case was still developing at the time, tech journalists, bloggers, activists, and independent/public news media immediately poked the “Twitter Revolution” narrative full of holes. These skeptics challenged the notion that technologies rather than people are decisive for social movements, and continue to argue for placing new media impacts within wider, offline (socio-economic and political) contexts, stressing that the new technologies are “tools” that are used for oppression as well as liberation.
Although Iran’s case carried the Twitter Revolution narrative to new heights, it also played a part in mainstreaming its counter-narratives. Sullivan himself was soon among those “cured” of the “Twitter obsession,” as Morozov put it. And notwithstanding the unfortunate irony about the “town square” metaphor, Clinton’s latest speech reflected elements of this more balanced counter-narrative when she said of Egypt and Tunisia:
People protested because of deep frustrations with the political and economic conditions of their lives. They stood and marched and chanted and the authorities tracked and blocked and arrested them. The internet did not do any of those things; people did. In both of these countries, the ways that citizens and the authorities used the internet reflected the power of connection technologies on the one hand as an accelerant of political, social, and economic change, and on the other hand as a means to stifle or extinguish that change… We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real-world activism.”
Gone is the empowerment of technologies over people. Despite the contested “Twitter revolution” narrative’s partial revival through these recent revolutions, we all seem to be sobering up more and more from the new media celebrations. It looks like the counter-narrative has permeated the mainstream, balanced the scales, and even pronounced the debate around the “Twitter Revolution” dead.
Perhaps looking back on the rise of this particular narrative can shed some light on the path forward, including how to approach its more subtle but persistent variants such as “the Wikileaks Revolution” (Tunisia) and “Revolution 2.0” (Egypt). In Iran’s case, techno-utopianism in international coverage boomed due to foreign journalists being banned, credited Iranian journalists being restricted, and a young, mobile, tech-savvy, and highly educated population being at the ready. Certainly, the Western audience’s recognition of social media networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as popular, Western, youth-oriented, and benign also played a part. But the “Twitter revolution” also caught on due to a number of narratives that, in the Western consciousness, pre-existed the uprising.
One of them was the idea, cultivated since the early 2000s, of Iranian dissident blogger-journalists being driven to the free spaces of the internet in regionally disproportionate numbers, and experiencing persecution for their online, anti-régime endeavors. The stories of persecuted bloggers like Sina Motallebi and Hossein Derakhshan (still in jail today) come to mind, as does that of Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, the first Iranian blogger to die in prison. In the same period, the Bush administration pushed the Iran Freedom Support Act, which was passed in September, 2006. The serendipitous overlap between the rise of the internet’s role in Iranian civil society and the US régime-change agenda seemed to strengthen both. An additional narrative, purportedly reproduced historically by Iranian diaspora in the West, was one of Iranians (or “Persians”, rather) as intellectually and culturally advanced, similar to Westerners, “civilized,” and proud.
But there was also a deeper story about the internet itself as a vehicle of genuine democratic change that may have tipped the scales from balanced online/offline international solidarity towards over-enthusiasm about internet technologies. Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture traces internet narratives from the technology’s beginnings, and shows that the intersection between the internet and visions of utopian societies is as old as the Net itself. Could this utopian genesis narrative be at the root of today’s internet-boosting?
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Donya Alinejad is a PhD student at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU University). For Standplaats Wereld, she co-authored another article (in Dutch) about the educational reforms in the Netherlands. She also wrote about the media coverage of the Haiti earthquake and the Iranian elections of 2009, including the protests that followed.