Leading opposition leader, Mir-Hussein Mousavi‘s Facebook boasts 126,000 fans and has been an important platform to communicate Mousavi‘s messages to his Green Movement supporters and the world at large.
Mohammad Sadeghi, founder and head administrator of Mir Hossein Mousavi’s and Zahra Rahnavard’s (Mousavi's wife) supporters’ Network on Facebook, shares with Global Voices his views on citizen media and the role of social networking, its impact and the challenges it faces in Iran today.
Please tell me when and why Mousavi's Facebook group has been launched and what has been your role?
The page has been launched the day before the inauguration ceremony of Barak Obama on January 19th 2009. I founded this page as I had personal sympathy for Mr Mousavi since long time ago. As one of the most efficient political figures in the history of the Islamic republic, he has had one of the best track records in terms of management abilities handling the most difficult times and tasks of the and his unique position as a “conservative reformer”. The period where he has had the position of Prime minister, Iran was experiencing one of the hardest times facing the 4th biggest army of the world. Eight years of resistance was foremost and above all a question of logistics and management of scarce resources.
During this time, he had worked with the most famous political figures who later on have been known as “reformers”. For instance, former reformist president Khatami has been the minister of culture and Islamic guidance in his cabinet. I considered him therefore as the best chance for basic reform in Iran.
Even during his time of silence, he has always spoken out strongly in critical situations such as for the flop of the bill of press law reform and fraud evidences in the 9th presidential election five years ago. In each of the last four presidential elections, he has been asked by key reformist figures to stand as a candidate but he always refused. Considering all these facts, it was obvious to me that in case he stands up, Iran is going to stand up with him, even those who might not know about his track record. The only question then would be that of an effective system of media communication for his campaign.
Why do you think the Iranian government decided to let Iranains have access to Facebook, YouTube and several other sites before the election?
The middle class turned out to be the greatest problem of the populist government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The think thank of his government has targeted the lower classes of the society who indeed have been disregarded in terms of being effectively addressed by the previous governments.
Since the beginning of his first period of office, he began the systematic destruction of the institutional fundamentals of democracy like non-governmental organisations, as well as planning and controlling authorities, trying to monopolize the political system and eliminate political competition. The most important rival of this group have been the representatives of the middle class as his fiscal policy dominance weakened the private sector and caused a remarkable rise of inflation. As a result, the economic existential ground of the middle class has been seriously threatened by this government.
One of the only ways to keep the middle class busy and quiet was to carefully allow them creep into virtual platforms with the least potential of mobilizing. At that time, the power of these platforms as a mobilizing tool was not yet proven. The short history of virtual networks at that time did not include any kind of effective social activities and other than commonplace and sometimes trite entertainment. I think that the access to Facebook, YouTube and similar virtual platforms was a part of a multilateral policy aiming to humiliate and distract the middle class from real social participation and politically relevant interconnection.
A process innovation
What is the role and impact of Mousavi's Facebook group in the Green Movement so far? Do you think citizen media activities slowed down in recent months?
I would summarize the impact of Mousavi’s Facebook group as a “process innovation” to incorporate existing social network platforms into the Persian language media bandwidth. The Persian language media, which was limited to printed media and voice/motion picture broadcasters controlled by political authorities, experienced the first revolution during the time of the 1979 revolution. Inspired by the nightly newspaper movement during the time of the constitutional revolution in Iran (1905-1911), the Shah’s opposition movement exhausted the capacities of the printed media to the extent of wall writings. Presuming a central leadership, organized labor intensive “opposition” voices disempowered the capital intensive propaganda machine of the regime. In the late encounter of the centralized opposition and the centralized regime, this media system overturned the regime position by mobilization social forces into deviant opposition “disobedience”.
The second revolution in my opinion has been initiated by Mr Mousavi who called for “citizen staffs” and hence the automatized use of a wide range of suppressed potential for fundamental change. This decentralized campaign had the opportunity to exploit a wide range of communication methods – as the very tool of a campaign- while working out a consensus for a model of change. The Facebook page initiated and evolved the process of information by transforming the campaign into a non-political atmosphere of social networks.
The most important added value was the development of an international staff framework for media activities in social networks by linking and incorporating other virtual tools and initiating a broader virtual accessibility to the virtual –not necessarily political- society inspired by the weblog movement which during the previous time of reform under Khatami and developed independently leading. Alongside Balatarin, which has successfully been the first and by far strongest virtual knot of the weblog movement incorporating a wider range of different audience, Facebook became another complementary model of the new media movement.
Especially in the event which took place after the election, this combination has shown not only its impact in the field of information but also its power of mobilization based on a horizontal network structure with a minimal reliance on central leadership. Mousavi’s page on Facebook which has been the first online staff and his official page during the election created a framework for the fulfillment of the agenda of citizen journalism and citizen staff in Facebook, which has also inspired others and led to the creation and establishment of other active virtual groups, both national and international, with the aim to raise awareness of the events happening in Iran, be it in terms of empowering the circulation of information or in terms of mobilizing for rallies and to reach out to international mass media both inside and outside Iran.
These activities have not slowed down but rather matured during the time of the development of the Green Movement. Due to the horrible crackdown and permanent use of the state authority- which is the most obvious sign of dictatorial states- the true face of the current coup regime in Iran is unveiled and as a consequence, the showdown of the opposition movement has become harder and most costly. This cause the movement which is based on non-violence and civil disobedience tactics to reorganize and remain in a state of halt in terms of mobilization. I think an objective answer to this question can be given on the anniversary of the Green Movement on June 12th. Green Movement leaders have called for demonstrations on this day.
30% of our audience are non Iranians
You have more than 126,000 fans. How many of them are non Iranians? Do you think Mousavi's Facebook page is a bridge between non-Iranians and the Green Movement?
Due to the translations provided by our translation team as one of the most relevant activities of this page, we have many non-Iranian fans. But the real number cannot be detected as many of our fans which are in Iran have changed their profile settings, most importantly their location in order not to be tracked by the coup regime and to increase their security. My estimation based on different statistics is that about 30% of our audience are non-Iranian.
Yes, but it has been foremost a bridge between the Iranians inside Iran and those outside. There has always been a gap between Iranians inside Iran and those who live abroad in many aspects but foremost in terms of their “political” position. While the Iranians inside Iran were mostly either politically neutral (Embarrassed) or Pro-regime, the Iranians outside of Iran has had mostly radical opposition tendencies or affiliations.
After the coup in Iran’s 10th presidential election, a clear line has been drawn between people who have been robbed of their basic civil rights and those who stole it. This change caused a new mix of social forces and a rearrangement of the opposition.
The green movement has integrated many previously neutrals, pro-regime and opposition groups into one united social force. In this process, social networks in general provided an international platform for this new social force to define itself and to communicate. Mousavi’s Facebook group has been an early part of this process and an implementation example, initiator and supporter.
Leaders do not use virtual platforms directly
Mousavi and Karoubi use You Tube to spread their messages. What is about other services such as Twitter or blogs. Does the opposition use them? How?
These platforms is not used by them directly. They have sent out messages as a web compatible format. It was then the job of citizen media to spread them which they did through many different means, both on the web on different platforms and even outside the web through the real world extensions of these “citizen” networks. This decentralized media system of the Green Movement which I previously explained has spread to nearly every online platform, including Twitter and blogs. Also, the blog movement has been fundamental to the Green Movement and its system of media and therefore an experienced tool for activists. Twitter‘s role has been very significant during the first period of the protests where people in Iran sent out short messages about what is going on in Iran and were able to reach out to the world despite the desperate attempt of the coup regime to wall off Iran from the rest of the world.
Facebook and other citizen media tools are used more by city dwellers right? What about rural and/or less educated masses? Can citizen media/social networking have an impact on them?
Perhaps not a direct impact. Although many of the city dwellers have someone in their close family who is studying at some university. Nowadays the universities in Iran have spread to many small cities and districts and as the life of a student is directly coupled with the use of internet, hence internet in Iran is not limited to the city. Students therefore play a key role as intermediates between the internet and people who do not have access to it, especially in rural communities.
In general there is always a very strategic group of people who intermediate between the virtual world and the real world, carrying the information in and out. For instance they have been the main source during the first weeks after the election providing the mass media with information and video/photo material and also afterwards playing a crucial role in mobilizing for the governmental protests which has been overwhelmed with the presence of the Green Movement by using all sorts of old ways to spread the message, from wall writings to printed messages, as well as SMS and Bluetooth. These people are the engine of the Green Movement network media connecting the virtual world to the people who cannot access it.