Whether tracing back to the origins of the printing press and tape machine or focusing on current day social networks and cellular devices, technology has served as a vital instrument in mass communication and mobilization. Democratic movements throughout the Muslim World have been facilitated by tools of communication that have widened and pluralized flows of information, and empowered society with a sense of hope and citizenship. No matter how restrictive the regulations or how severe the repercussions, communities around the world have exhibited enormous creativity in sidestepping political constraints on technology in order to exercise their freedoms. For the Green Movement in Iran, it was Twitter; for the Saffron Revolution in Burma, it was YouTube; for the “color revolutions” of the former Soviet Union, it was mobile phones. By puncturing the informational monopoly many regimes have in place, Muslim Countries have been able to take steps towards democratization and freedom more effectively.
To shed positive light on another Muslim country, I would like to focus on Iran since it is often times forgotten in American media as pro-democratic. Although now under the shadow of it’s rebellious neighbors, Iran has been home to many democratic movements prior to the revolutionary Islamic world we have seen over the past year. However, its democratic Green Movement has been relatively stagnant due to the counter-policies the regime has imposed to block efforts since 2009. Nevertheless, Iran’s location and relation to the tumultuous and revolutionary Muslim world has had a great impact in galvanizing the Green Movement out of hibernation. Precedent countries, such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, have set the tone for outburst in Muslim countries that suffer under their respective regimes. The use of video, social networking, and blogging has allowed these voices to travel beyond their borders, and has sparked awareness in neighboring countries. The toppled governments of Tunisia and Egypt have had a ripple effect, shaking the region as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and Iran have all been experiencing protest. There is a palpable solidarity between the protesters of the different states as their goals are essentially the same.
In Iran, the use of social networking has not only enlightened the outside world to controversy within the country, but also brought about awareness for Iranian people themselves. In a society where dissent is not tolerated, voices are silenced and no communication is private, Iranians have created a network that challenges the regime and its values. A new side of Iran is thus portrayed as individual Iranians are able to voice their true opinions and outlook of the Modern World, as opposed to that of its repressive government. 33,200,000 Internet users have been calculated in Iran out of the 76,923,300 total population. Iran leads the Middle Eastern region in Internet user growth over the past decade and accounts for just under 50% of Internet users in the entire region. However, the question of why the Iranian government has not fallen, like others in the region such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, beckons. As seen in the 1905 Constitutional Revolution, the 1954 Mossadegh Scandal, the 1979 Islamic Revolution and 2009 Green Revolution, Iran is a country with great resilience and determination. Why have they fallen more silent now in the wake of some of the most colossal Muslim revolutions of all time?
The shockwave around the globe of inspired opposition has also set off concern amongst authoritarian leaders themselves. Just as activists are learning lessons from revolution elsewhere, leaders are also drawing conclusions on how to avoid these situations. In the case of Iran, hardliners have tightened their grip in order to eliminate turbulence in society. The regime has dug in its heels and resorted to violence, as it has since post-election protests broke out in 2009. If there is a lesson to be taken away from the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali, it is that demonstrations are only emboldened by compromise. Brute force, unfortunately, can be much more effective. At the same time, suppression can hold down a people for only so long, as the countless upheavals throughout the region show. If the Iranians are able to mobilize in the numbers as they did in 2009, then the regime has reason for concern. Despite what the movement’s leaders are forced to say publicly, this is no longer a struggle merely aimed at reforming the existing system. Those days are over, and Iran’s rulers are likely to recognize this in private.
The Iranian Regime has taken the use of technology into its own hands by conducting its Cyber Jihad to battle the average Internet user and manipulate ideas towards their goals. Realizing that social networking and Internet usage is its Achilles heel, the regime has the Islamic Revolutionary Guards dedicated to dominating chat rooms and shaping discourse on the Internet. In a desperate move to control this ‘cyberspace,’ the Iranian state is slowing down program downloading to brutally slow paces, and blocking more sites with display pages referencing state-approved sites. In fact, one can view the list of ‘proper’ sites in a state-run website. Whether involved with the Green Movement or not, these actions by the government has angered many Internet users in Iran who are forced to connect to the Internet through these Big Brother methods.
The regime has proactively purchased and sought increasingly advanced technology to aid their monitoring and blocking efforts. As sharing online images and messages through social-networking sites has become easy and popular, repressive regimes are turning to technologies that allow them to scan such content from their own citizens, message by message. The government appears to be engaging in a practice often called deep packet inspection, which enables authorities to not only block communication but to monitor it to gather information about individuals, as well as alter it for disinformation purposes. This monitoring capability was provided in part by a joint venture of Siemens AG and Nokia Corp. Users in the country have reported the Internet having slowed to less than a tenth of normal speeds. Deep packet inspection delays the transmission of online data, unless it is offset by a huge increase in processing power, which not only discourages users, but intimidates some to stop using it entirely out of fear. The Regime has reportedly bought over 700 million dollars worth of software that allows them to control and monitor any activity, and has blocked more than five million sites in recent years.
The Iranian regime has adopted the same methods utilized by its people in order to stifle growth and democratic movement. Technologies are complex and continuously evolving manifestations of social forces and cause persistent tension between those who see them as technologies of liberation, and those who see them as technologies of control. This tug of war between the uses of technology as a positive tool versus a negative tool will ultimately be won based on better tactics, craft, and organization.