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How Iranians’ use of an app is changing politics and civil society

- April 26, 2016
An Iranian woman takes pictures with her mobile phone in front of a portrait of parliamentary candidate Ali Motahari on Feb. 23, 2016. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Green Wave cascaded into the Iranian Green Movement during the summer of 2009, outside observers rushed to claim the demonstrations as their own. They declared the unfolding crisis to be the “Twitter Revolution,” an updated model of velvet revolution enabled by the new social media, the status update and the tweet replacing the guillotine of 1789 France and the round table of 1989 Poland. The revolution would be recorded and shared, made available for viewing on Facebook and YouTube by a million citizens empowered not by Moscow or Washington but by engineers in Sunnyvale and San Francisco.

In fact, this conventional narrative had it exactly backwards: The claim that online platforms fomented political action in Iran inverts the cause and effect. Iranians before and after the Green Movement were more likely to turn to social media as a refuge from politics and the tedium of an official ideology that, otherwise inescapable, lay heavy over the public sphere, suffocating even the most mundane of daily interactions. Public action only encouraged the retreat into the private self and the proliferation of social media, the distractions of the online world offering shelter from an offline life that simply seemed off. Under such circumstances, virtual communities seemed to many Iranians more “real” than the one imagined by the ideological state.

In recent years, platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have become effective instruments for the mobilization of voter participation in Iranian elections, because they were already depoliticized by ordinary usage. Though a crucial component in the current reformist strategy to use the vote as a way to hold the line against the return of Ahmadinejad-style incompetence and radicalism, the recruitment of social media as part of the long march of incrementalism is hardly the stuff of revolutions. Largely unnoticed outside of Iran and lacking the dramatics of large-scale protests, Iranians’ use of their tablets and smartphones to persuade each other — and themselves —  to participate in a deeply flawed electoral system nonetheless offers the best measure of citizenship and civil society in Iran today. It is the manner of their participation that we need to pay more attention to, the ad hoc mobilization of millions of families and friends in the days and weeks leading up to election day, a ground game almost always self-forming and rooted in an informal politics from below.

Over the past year these efforts have converged on a single messaging application, Telegram. Last month, Narges Bajoghli described how Telegram’s end-to-end encryption has made it possible for Iranians to engage in open dialogue about politics without fear of government surveillance. “There are thousands of chats on Telegram dedicated to the [most recent] elections. … These chats serve as channels through which groups can get out their message in a secure way to users,” Bajoghli explained.

Data drawn from the sections of Telegram devoted entirely to political discussion tells only part of the story. Extending these findings, my research in Iran on social media this past February indicates that the successful mobilization of reformist and moderate factions mostly occurred across channels with little to no connection with the elections and those specifically not devoted to political discussion.

Telegram’s particular appeal and power as an instrument of political organization lies in not only its online security but also its ease of use, an interface that inspires eclecticism and cross-cutting ties of social solidarity. The app organizes conversations by discrete channels, sorted into categories reflecting the dizzying variety of ordinary life. These groups soon began to intersect: the retired schoolteachers of District 6 in Tehran, say, naturally overlapping with the fanatics of the Persepolis football club and the members of the Sistan Baluchestan mountaineering society, all of them converging on the channel dedicated to “Stage,” a live-singing competition broadcast out of London and the latest obsession of Iranian audiences around the world.

To borrow from Robert Putnam, this bridging effect — a phenomenon in which diverse groups interact and increase their shared social capital — is important among Telegram users because retail politics continues to be the coin of the realm in Iran. The decision to vote tends to be deeply personal, very often made on behalf of a friend, relative or loved one at the last possible moment, with some “20 percent of the electorate making a decision about whether to vote or not essentially in the last few weeks prior to the election,” according to Farideh Farhi. Telegram amplifies these existing traditional networks rather than replacing them, the analog fueling the digital. Already gathered in a safe, non-politicized, place online, it is a small step for a handful of enthusiasts to mobilize acquaintances or “weak ties” using Telegram around a particular political faction.

For Iran’s reform movement, mobilization is a non-negotiable imperative as low turnout — which in the Iranian context means anything below 70 percent ­— always favors conservatives and incumbents. The opposition begins each electoral cycle already in the hole, forced to compensate for the permanent absence of the 15 percent to 20 percent of the electorate that reject the Islamic Republic outright and therefore never vote but would likely vote reformist if they did. Making matters worse, these lost votes are roughly matched — 15 percent to 20 percent — by dyed-in-the-wool regime stalwarts who always vote, and always in favor of the conservatives.

Reformists simply cannot afford to leave any voter behind. The organization of the fluid, fickle middle, that 60 percent that may or may not vote, into a groundswell of support provides the best and perhaps only means for Iran’s opposition to overcome the structural barriers arrayed against them. This phenomenon was illustrated by the “wave” elections that unexpectedly carried Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani into office and buoyed Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009, though he ultimately was not declared the winner.

Telegram made this difficult work of mobilization much easier during the first round of the 2016 campaign for the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts. Designed to be a medium of visual as well as textual exchange, Telegram’s architecture enabled organizers to bring an infectious joyousness to what was otherwise a serious and painstaking process of getting-out-the-vote, the proverbial slow boring of politics’ hard boards made more enjoyable by memes, animated videos and funny stickers featuring the endorsements of prominent celebrities and politicians. Initially produced for distribution on channels dedicated to the campaign, these quickly spread across the spectrum as ordinary users shared content that ranged from primers on the rudiments of voting to clips espousing the ethics of small change over large, to banners mocking hardline politicians.

They spread because they were entertaining. For example, a campaign calling itself Prevention is Better than a Cure featured memes made out of the outrageous statements of hardline MPs. It became so popular that conservatives soon got in on the act, copying it with their own “no2uk” campaign, in which luminaries such as Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill “reminded” voters that the British had not abandoned their habit of interfering in Iranian affairs.

Telegram also played a critical role in rallying the vote through the distribution of voting lists. As I reported shortly after the first round of balloting, these lists were the central tactic used by reformists and conservative factions alike for organizing the votes of Iran’s 53 million eligible voters, including 3 million citizens who were voting for the first time. Absent a proper party system, the list ensured that votes for the reform and moderate camps would not be fractured on election day, a decision that likely facilitated their sweep of Tehran.

Of course, one might ask whether an app or any other corner of social media can be popular or powerful enough to correct a system with permanent, undemocratic features. It was always the dream of the neo-Tocquevillians that associational life would foster democratic souls, “the heart enlarged … by the reciprocal action of men upon one another,” as well as democracies that work by creating “strong, responsive, effective representative institutions.” Although that dream turned into the nightmare of a democracy deferred as many of the fragile governments that emerged out of the third and fourth waves curdled into competitive authoritarian states, or worse, faith remains that civil society and social media can act as instruments of progressive change.

Tocqueville himself had a less sanguine view of democracy than many of his latter-day interlocutors, viewing associational life as a necessary hedge against the worst tendencies of democracy. He understood that the expansion of equal conditions, “fated, permanent, and daily passing beyond human control,” would cause individuals to turn inward and eventually to “pass beneath the yoke” of the majority, a tyranny “held out … by the arms of a million men.” Associations, by fostering other-regarding behavior or what Tocqueville described as “self-interest properly understood,” pulled individuals out of themselves and back toward their communities.

Such seems to be the case in Iran, where social media appears to have encouraged many Iranians to live lives at least partially in the public sphere. Tocqueville’s observation that Americans “of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations” applies to the Iranians, at least in their online selves. Anyone who has spent time in Iran can’t help but notice that Iranians of all stripes seem to always be on their smartphones, texting, chatting, and sharing memes and music clips that quickly become ubiquitous, part of the shared vernacular. Cosseted in unsplendid isolation from the world and excited by the possibilities presented by social media, the appetite for social interaction in Iran is insatiable, an exuberance that cuts across political, cultural and class categories.

At least part of that excitement carries over into the political realm and was put to great effect in this last set of elections. If nothing else, the vote represents an act of faith that democracy can work in a country where it does not fully exist. Against diminishing odds, Iranians put their faith in the vote because of their lack of faith in the system, a reality acknowledged by the highest levels of the Iranian government. Voting for candidates who have almost no chance of winning — in Tehran alone, 1,021 candidates stood for 30 seats in the Majlis — in a system that is unlikely to change significantly in the near future can only be understood as an expression of willful hope, a belief that on this Earth secular salvation under an Islamic state is still possible, if only because the alternative would be hell.

Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College. This piece was informed by a panel event “The Revolution will be Telegrammed:  Iran after the Elections and the End of Sanctions,” held at Swarthmore College on April 14, 2016.