The Twittering is Silenced
Published in the Swiss daily newspaper “Tagesanzeiger” on February 25, 2010
Source (German): http://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/ausland/naher-osten-und-afrika/Das-Zwitschern-ist-verstummt/story/30959208
English translation kindly provided by Josh Manning
Edited by germantoenglish
by Christoph Lenz
The Twitter Revolution in Iran has failed. The internet has lost its magic as an instrument to democracy.
Nothing was sacred to the regime during the weeks before February 11, 2010, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
Not only had the Iranian telecommunications authorities slowed down the internet, as it has become common practice in the run-up to major days of power affirmation.
This time the online webcam service Skype was also restricted, as well as the chat network MSN. The regime did not even hold back when it came to restricting cell phone use. On February 6th, different Iranian providers stopped their SMS services.
The goal of the Iranian authorities was to paralyze the communications network of the Green Movement and its opposition leader Hossein Mousavi. Since the election of June 2009, the dissidents coordinated their protest against the regime of President Ahmadinejad through social networks and online services. They found virtual smuggling routes through the internet in order to send out messages abroad. Blurred videos of protest conflict made their way directly into the evening broadcasts of the likes of BBC and CNN. In cyberspace, brief messages became headlines that moved the world.
Dreams of simple truth
The Twitter Revolution was born. A summer fairy tale which clung to the old fantasy of the West: that the troops, weapons, and secret service could be powerless against the free circulation of truth. In the case of Twitter: truth was reduced to 140 characters.
Then came the 11th of February, 2010. The world looked towards Tehran and saw a hundred thousand demonstrators celebrating the Islamic Revolution, and President Ahmadinejad announcing that Iran now has an atomic bomb. There was not a trace of revolutionaries or cyberspace dissidents from the Green Movement. What could they have done? The regime had pulled their plug. First it was quiet on Twitter, Facebook, and various blogs. Likewise, it became quiet in the entire country. Only the regime could spread their version of truth.
For the dissidents, helplessness prevailed. Mohammad Sadeghi, responsible for the German registered Facebook site for the opposition leader Moussavi, explained to the American magazine Foreign Policy last week, “We wanted to create pressure from the internet. Ahmadinejad should be forced to take up negotiations with Moussavi. Our plan failed. Nobody knows how it’s going to continue.”
The Chinese Wall 2.0
Hardy ever has a revolution become so noiseless. And hardly ever was it so obvious that the internet could not only give power to liberal voices, but also to the authoritarian regime itself. If this is to serve understanding, it is increasingly doing just that. State interference is no longer bound to plain censorship. In the so called Web 2.0, the government is steering internet discussions with the creation of pro-government bloggers, and they intentionally use the internet for the purpose of pursuing the opposition.
In early February, the President of Belarus adopted a policy forcing citizens to identify themselves before giving them access to the internet. With this, internet surfers can find themselves being shadowed with every click. Likewise, China is trying to establish a second wall of which experts are dubbing “the Great Firewall”. Nothing goes in, nothing comes out: at least not without the permission of the Ministry of Information.
Everyone is the mass media
Of course, the internet has never promised it would liberate the world. But we already envisioned something different with the growth of the global network. It should no longer follow the old rules of the mass media. The low start-up costs and the unrestricted, global range of the net suggested that each user could become a part of the mass media. It was also referred to as the democratization of information.
With every computer connected to the net, it was said, the beacon of democracy would grow ever brighter. Freedom and rule of law would propagate themselves into the most remote regions of the world via telephone and optical cables. Scientists even concluded that the openness of a country could be determined by the number of computers per inhabitants, later even the number of iPods per head.
Hamburgers, Blue Jeans, iPods
Such calculations had been made before. Give people televisions – and they will inform. Give them hamburgers and blue jeans – and they will call for human rights. Give them iPods – and they will want to be free. These are calculations which have not been come true.
Still during 2000, Bill Clinton declared that controlling the internet was impossible and was like nailing pudding to a wall. For four weeks, Hillary Clinton had to contradict her husband. “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress” said the US Secretary of State. “And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.”
How significant is it to have 180,000 friends?
“That is exactly the problem”, said Evgeny Morozov, the Washington D.C. publicist and expert for new media. Morozov pointed out early that the internet could be used by both the good guys and the bad guys. In a hearing of the OSCE (Organization for security and cooperation in Europe), he explained that in Egypt, it was the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood that determined the discourse in blogs, and in Palestine it was the radical Hamas, in Russia it was fascist groups, and in Iran it was government financiers and religious seminars.
Iran is also a good example in pointing out the malice of social networks. Opposition leader Moussavi has more than 180,000 friends on Facebook. The problem: He does not know where on the globe they live, let alone how he could have them contribute to his campaign and to what extent he can count on them. When Moussavi wanted to demonstrate on February 11th against Ahmadinejad, they were not there. Good friends they were.
“The West believed for a long time that the internet gets the job done” said Evgeny Morozov. Since these strategies did not work, the governments of the world will now have to reconsider how they can really help the intellectuals and dissidents of totalitarian regimes.
The Twitter of the pre-Digital Age
It was not the first time the West had caused a turn in Iran. In the 70’s, when Ayatollah Khomeini sent tapes with his recorded lectures from his exile in Paris to his homeland: These were in essence, the Twitter messages of the pre-digital age. Together, they influenced strikes and protests against the Shah.
But the tapes were not what smoothed the path to the Islamic Revolution. It was the conference in Guadeloupe, during January of 1979, where US President Carter turned French Prime Minister Giscard D’Estaing, Federal Chancellor Schmidt and British Prime Minister Callaghan away from the Shah, thus leaving Iran to Khomeini.
Practical politics comes first. After the disenchantment of the internet, the world is about to recognize that nothing has changed this dictum.