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Will Revolutionary Geeks and User Generated Content Topple the Ayatollah?

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During the 2008 United States presidential election we experienced the first indication of a previously unknown political media ecology. Driven by social media such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter and propagated via computer, cellphone and MP3 player, these elements of what Fordham University professor Paul Levinson has called the “New New Media,” changed our national political landscape and are now working globally to transform political balances around the world. At home, grassroots organizers for Barack Obama were able to bypass the mainstream media, speak directly to potential voters and to orchestrate small-cap fund raising drives on an unprecedented scale. Off-the-cuff comments from candidates captured by portable devices drove news cycles for weeks at a time and changed political fortunes. For example, one instance of George Allen’s career-ending “macaca” video has currently been viewed on YouTube almost 400,000 times. As Levinson notes in his upcoming book, The New New Media: “the true or fully empowered new new media user also has the option of producing content, and consuming content produced by hundreds of millions of other new new media consumer-producers.”

Now, with the current election fiasco in Iran, we are seeing the true potential of the new new media. The obviously fraudulent Iranian election outcome might have gone unnoticed and unchallenged in previous political media environments. At the very least, the Iranian ruling powers would have been able to clamp down on information flow by shutting down media outlets and controlling reporters’ access to the events.

Not anymore. Cell phone videos and snapshots of demonstrations and reprisals, “Tweets” with tactical and other organizing information and other new new media reporting have completely trumped Iranian efforts to control the public perception of their election. As Richard Engel noted on The Rachel Maddow Show last night, to control the user-generated content of civil protest the Iranian rulers would have to shut down the entire country:

“What the Iranian crackdown is, it’s very old fashioned. They want to control the media so they’re cutting off phones and they’re kicking out established reporters and harassing reporters. That’s very 1980’s, 1990’s way of a media crackdown. It has not helped them control the information war.”

In the 1980’s Neil Postman argued that any new technology disseminated to the populace by our electronic conglomerates constituted an uncontrolled social experiment on society. Every new medium or device presents a Faustian bargain, creating winners and losers within the population based solely on the characteristics of the technology. The new new media change the flow of information from the one-to-many of traditional media outlets to the many-to-many of the internet. Without single choke points to block the flow of information, would-be tyrants are finding it difficult to control the narrative of their national political events and the word gets out from multiple sources, with pictures!

The upside of the new new media is that democratic inclinations gain new traction against entrenched despotic institutions. The downside is that turmoil is inevitable as current power holders seek to retain their positions. In our own country this turmoil is played out by the decline and fall of the Republican Party and the not coincidental individual incidents of right-wing violence that accompany that collapse. Overseas, the chaos and destruction may be more pronounced as entire societies react to the potentialities of the new new media and the violence spills out into the streets.

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About Bob

  • http://www.whalertly.com/wordpress barga

    this is doing nothing. that said, we have no right to do anything.

  • Baronius

    Allen made that comment almost three years ago. The new new media have been around for a while. (Maybe they’re just “new”.) I’d also dispute your political statements in the final paragraph. But the gist of the article makes sense.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    It is worth noting that Ayatollah Khomeini got to power through a new media of his day – the cassette tape. The older geezers in the revolutionary regime remember this and are probably grating their teeth and pulling their beards over seeing Twitter twitter by their attempts at dictatorial control.

    If they weren’t so damned willing to kill Jew-folk like me, I’d almost feel sorry for the bastards. But this way – they have it coming.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    “The obviously fraudulent Iranian election outcome”

    Obviously fraudulent? How do you know this? I’m curious.

  • http://whalertly.blogspot.com Robert M. Barga

    Ruvy, as a jew, i hate the fact that you keep prosing yourself as a victim

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Ruvy, as a jew, i hate the fact that you keep prosing yourself as a victim

    WTF?

    These ayatollah bastards are the reason we cannot afford for the Persians to go nuclear. These ayatollah bastards have gone to war (under the guise of their puppets Hamas and HizbAllah) twice. Their rocket bombardment forced the northern third of Israel to evacuate its homes in 2006.

    Posing as victims? Obviously you have never looked into the face of a man driven from his home by war. I have. You complacent and ignorant American Jews don’t know shit, and yet you dare open your traps! Between your ignorant comments, and those of big ego and big checkbook slobs like Malcolm Hoenlein, you get me sick to my stomach.

    If these riots get rid of the regime of the ayatollahs and something human and humane replaces these “Mahdi madmen”, we do not have to bomb Tehran to nuclear glass for the sake of our own survival. It would be a pleasure NOT to have to contemplate such awful things. But the Persians are 30 hours away from us by tank and 20 minutes away from us by missile. Their puppets in Lebanon are a lot closer.

    When was the last time you picked up a rifle in defense of the Jewish People, Robert? When was the last time you went on patrol of any kind against terrorists out to attack Jews in their homes or on the streets? Those patrols win you a voice and a right to speak on behalf of those of us in danger. Living in the risk of death wins you a voice. Nothing else.

    Until then, I suggest you still your complacent and ignorant tongue from critcizing me for worrying about the fate of the people you don’t give a damn about.

    Your own!

  • http://whalertly.blogspot.com Robert M. Barga

    I prefer not to be violent, my family had enough of that when all but my grandfather and his immediate families were killed by the Nazis. I use my lease on life as a way to be proactive, and not harm my people by bitching about everything

  • http://whalertly.blogspot.com Robert M. Barga

    and watch yourslef, you are advocating not only attacks on a specific country, but on a people

    if anybody actually listened to you, you might be saluted in a Caeser-esq manner

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/dan_miller Dan(Miller)

    Doc, re Comment #4

    Here is an article which responds to, but probably won’t answer, your question.

    It does seem “obvious” that a bit of a stink is brewing, and that it is rapidly becoming something which even an extraordinarily repressive government may be unable to eliminate. If the Iranian authorities are unable effectively and quickly to silence those who oppose it, and is toppled, perhaps that may answer your question.

    Dan(Miller)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Certainly a better way for a democracy to take hold, from within, rather than trying to impose it through invasion. Iran has always been a more fertile ground than Iraq and more ripe for Westernization.

    Robert,

    You make some good points about the impact of the new technology insofar as the global village is concerned. It’s no longer possible to keep things under wraps, even given the most repressive regimes.

    You might want to look at my BC series, “Quantum of Solace: The Making of Modern Consciousness,” where I argue that the technological revolution in mass communications has changed the world beyond recognition: we’re all wired.

    It’s nice to see you filling in the details and adding flesh to my rather general argument.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    PS: Robert Blechman

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    I agree social media is changing the world. Controlling the media is everything. When people all over the world can talk directly to each other–gov’ts can no longer control the media. Even when they try.

    In the age of surveillance, it’s not quite 1984. Gov’t may be watching, but the people are also watching back and telling their stories with words and pictures and video, directly to each other.

    Violence in the street? Gov’t violence generally against citizens. Many times with blocked reportage. Now people have their own voice.

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    Here’s a good analysis of what social media is doing:

    Twitter Comes of Age, Goes Green for Iran

    “If you’ve ever tried to validate Twitter’s existence to a bunch of haters who keep insisting that Twitter is full of useless people tweeting about how they’re making a sandwich, you now officially have something to shove in their faces. For those of you who don’t follow the news, here’s a quick recap:

    Iran had presidential elections last week. Voter turnout was disproportionately high and final tallies were delivered absurdly quickly, leading many in Iran and abroad to suspect that the election, which went strongly in favor of incumbent Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was rigged. In the days leading up to and immediately after the election, many modes of communication were suspended in Iran, including text messaging, many popular social networking websites and email services, leaving Twitter as one of the only remaining methods of communication.

    What followed was the event that may turn out to be the “breaking point” for Twitter, the point where people wake up and realize that it’s not about sandwiches. Protesters in Iran supporting the opposition party began to organize via Twitter. Protesters on the ground began to use Twitter to post updates about police reaction to the protests, violence against protesters, and to aggregate content like photos and videos of the protests beyond Iran’s borders. When CNN failed to give the Iranian election the attention it deserved, Twitter users bashed the network with the #CNNFail hashtag, which trended on Twitter for an entire day. CNN subsequently revised its coverage, making the Iranian political situation one of its most prominent stories (while failing completely to acknowledge that they’d failed to do so in the first place).”

    (cont. at link)

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Interesting article, but the ignorance of that last paragraph is just staggering.

    Those of us who are actually somewhat more politically and technologically keyed in know the huge role that new media is playing in the grassroots resurgence of the political right, a phenomenon which is itself deserving of study.

    Dave

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Your point is debatable, Dave. The demise of the Republican Party is not such an outlandish proposition. And so is the case with interpreting “individual incidents of right-wing violence” as acts of desperation.

    No question that “the new (social) media” is being made use of by both parties to the conflict (if only to mobilize the rank and file). But it’s also arguable that the “liberal” mindset is more receptive and wired to the newest in technological development then the old farts – all those at least who almost by definition (of “conservatism,” vulgar, to be sure) are resistant to change. And in light of this, Blechman’s last paragraph, far from displaying “staggering ignorance,” sounds quite reasonable to me.

  • Clavos

    The demise of the Republican Party is not such an outlandish proposition.

    I am reminded of Mark Twain’s justly famous bons mots

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Considering the source, I’m not certain whether to take that remark as a compliment. But I shall, even at the risk of misreading it.

  • mark

    Rog, you’re funny. Welcome back.

  • Clavos

    It wasn’t a compliment, Roger.

    Neither was it a critique.

    Merely an observation regarding your rush to judgment.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Dan @ #9,

    Vigorous article, but one that doesn’t add much to the debate except further flying mud. My main objection to Mr Blechman’s contention of ‘obvious’ fraud in the Iranian election is his lack of support for the statement – as if he were simply going along with the notion that because the ‘wrong’ guy won, the result must necessarily be fraudulent.

    The best analysis I’ve seen so far comes from the impeccable Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com, who argues that the results alone are just as likely NOT to display evidence of fraud as the other way round. He does smell a rat, and links, towards the bottom of the piece, to an article by Juan Cole, which provides a more persuasive case, to my mind, as to the seafoody nature of the election results than has been bandied about in most quarters thus far.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, Clav. When I noticed the conspicuous lack of action (and the fighting spirit) which characterized the BC comment-threads since I’d left – and I know I’ll be shot down for saying so! – I realized I must step in and rescue it from the doldrums which were bound on overtaking it. So there!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’d think that it was Dave who had rushed to judgement by dismissing Bletchman’s last paragraph as an example of “staggering ignorance.” All I did – or at least tried to do – was to throw in the monkey wrench.

    As to the facts of the case, whether the Republican Party is in a state of dissolution or rebuilding, it remains to be seen.

  • m ar k

    lol at 21

    Speed typists must die!

    btw, I thought yours and Robert’s observation about the possible demise of the GOP rather circumspect and hardly a ‘rush to judgment’.

  • Clavos

    Any prediction of the demise of the Republican party is, at this point either, to use Mr. Clemens’ expression, “an exaggeration,” or wishful thinking.

    I suspect the latter applies.

  • mar k

    I’d think that it was Dave who had rushed to judgement by dismissing Bletchman’s last paragraph as an example of “staggering ignorance.”

    Dave is an experienced hyper bole player.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    An appeal to simplistic minds, you say?

  • Baronius

    I made the same point about that last paragraph. What is this right-wing violence? The anarchist who shot Tiller, the socialist at the Holocaust Museum, the Muslim outside the recruitment center, or the preacher complaining about Obama being controlled by the Jews?

  • sYgnal

    You’d think that Mr. Matthew T. Sussman would’ve been all over this considering his pro Twitter articles(it’s not a bad thing).

  • Baronius

    I read Silver’s analysis. I don’t know if it is applicable to Iran, but it definitely is wrong for the US. The first wave of poll results are urban. Typically, that means they lean Democratic. You can make decent projections based on them, but those projections will have to weight the higher percentage of minority and upper-income voters. So while the projections may come in proportional to the overall vote (and they better be, if they’re projections), the reporting will always be urban first, rural second.

    Is that how the reporting waves worked in Iran? I don’t know. Based on what I’ve heard, Mousavi’s support was greater in the country than in the city. So if the city districts reported first, followed by the outlying areas, we should have seen a shift toward Mousavi as the tallies came in.

  • Clavos

    @ #29:

    All of which is predicated on the assumption that the elections were as systematic and fraud-free as they are in only a handful of nations.

    I rather doubt Iran is among the handful.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Based on what I’ve heard, Mousavi’s support was greater in the country than in the city.

    I’ve read the exact opposite. One of the fishiest aspects of the election is that Ahmadinejad won in Tehran, where he is unpopular even among the working poor who have until recently formed his support base.

    Iranian politics also has a strong regional/ethnic slant to it, and the fourth-placed candidate Karroubi’s failure to do well even in his home province is looking a bit dodgy to some observers.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Clav @ #30:

    And Silver acknowledges this.

    His point is that, based on an analysis of the published results alone, there is little appreciable difference between the Iranian election and the last US presidential election, which, presumably, was conducted by and large in a fair and above-board manner.

  • Baronius

    Dread, you’re right and I’m wrong. I was thinking of Mousavi’s support among the Azeris, who as far as I know are mainly rural.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    The real news here is not whether Mousavi or Ahmadinejad captured the vote. The news is that the all-powerful Council of Sages – or whatever they call themselves – was forced by Twitter to take a political act that has compromised its position in its own “universe” of dictatorship that it has created.

    That in itself is a tremendous victory that bodes well for an internal revolution – and this is far better than an external agent taking extreme measures to insure its own survival.

    I have pointed out elsewhere that the Persians view themselves as the inheritors of an empire and it matters little which regime comes to power – they will all want nuclear weapons, the current plaything of the modern day empire.

    But a country that follows a more responsible policy as to the use of the weaponry is far preferable to the “Mahdi mullahs” who think they have to bring their version of Redemption to us.

    While I certainly hope the regime is swept away, I doubt that it will be. And, unfortunately, an external agent will need to take extreme measures to insure its own survival.

    And we in Israel DO HAVE THE RIGHT TO INSURE OUR OWN SURVIVAL, NO MATTER WHAT FOOLS IN AMERICA MAY SAY.

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    Let’s not underestimate the strength and will of 85% voter turnout

  • http://whalertly.blogspot.com Robert M. Barga

    Ruvy,
    we all agree that Israel has the right to defend itself