London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Although the protests that followed Iran’s disputed presidential election of 2009 were a largely spontaneous movement born out of popular outrage, it reached a global audience in part thanks to the role played by social media platforms. Once Iranians took to the streets, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube became a medium for both spreading their message abroad and for rallying their countrymen. Journalists based abroad seized on the tweets and Facebook posts of the protesters and the videos they uploaded in order to cover the story of the unrest in Iran.
The protesters also used Twitter and Facebook to spread news that went unreported by official media, to circumvent shutdowns of text messaging services by the government, and to spread information about how to evade government restrictions on access to the Internet. One Twitter hashtag—#IranElection—emerged briefly as the key search term, before it was overwhelmed by messages of support from well-wishers abroad.
In response to the huge surge, the San Francisco-based company famously delayed a scheduled maintenance period to give its users in Iran more time to use the service, citing “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.”
With government restrictions on the press, especially the foreign media, it was online social networks and resources like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that allowed activists and protesters in Iran to gain a global audience, bypassing both government controls and traditional news organizations as long as the services remained active and accessible.
Despite a number of fatalities among the protestors, the death of one young woman in particular became a worldwide sensation because it was caught on camera and subsequently uploaded onto YouTube. Neda Agha-Soltan, aged 26, a travel agent and music student, was shot while watching the demonstrations in Tehran on June 20, 2009, allegedly by a member of the pro-government Basij <ilitia.
She died at the scene. The graphic footage of her death, which showed her lying on the ground as a physician and bystanders attempted to staunch the bleeding from a bullet wound in her chest, quickly went viral, and was picked up and broadcast on TV news networks worldwide.
Her name became a rallying cry on Twitter, with users appropriating it as a hashtag—#neda—that began trending as the protests picked up steam. It is still sometimes used to mark tweets four years later, in the run-up to today's elections.
The controversy around her death also showed the dark side of social media—its ability to spread inaccurate and damaging information quickly, before the truth can catch up. One young Iranian woman with a similar name was misidentified as Neda, and predictably received much unwelcome attention as a result.
This year, there is more marked cynicism within Iran about the electoral process and less popular enthusiasm for the election in general. The government has also learned its lesson, and has been closely monitoring social networks, blogs and other electronic resources used by political activists.
In May 2013, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, the overall commander of Iranian police forces, told the press that the police monitored the social networks. Ahmadi-Moghaddam said the police usually try to look up suspects' online footprints, adding that the intensity of their activity online is usually an indicator of the potential level of unrest in the run–up to events like elections. "However, a monitoring survey showed that the virtual network this year does not have the same energy as at the last election,” he added.
Although there are tighter government controls of the media, digital media and social networks have nevertheless played an important role in the campaign. While Facebook and other social networks are filtered in Iran, they are still considerate a significant platform for the candidates to promote their message. The campaign of each candidate has accordingly launched official pages on Facebook, while supporters have also created their own.
According to Khabar Online, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and a conservative loyalist, has the highest number of fan pages devoted to him—no fewer than 85. Qalibaf comes first in terms of presence on social networks, and his pages reflect his plans for development and his belief that improving Iran’s position in the world is the only means to fight back against the US.
Overall, Qalibaf’s campaign statistics reveal that more than 50 websites have been launched to support his hopes for election.
Hard-line conservative Saeed Jalili comes next with 73 Facebook fan pages, all of which are plastered with extracts from his speeches and pictures of him and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The official records suggest more than 900 blogs were launch to support Jalili’s candidacy. He also promised to launch a blog for each city in the country if he is elected president.
Mohsen Rezaei and Hassan Rouhani trail behind Qalibaf and Jalili in terms of Facebook presence. Rezaei, an independent conservative, has 45 Facebook pages, and his main focus is on economics and the economic challenges that Iran is facing today. Moderate Hassan Rouhani trails slightly behind, with 44 Facebook pages set up by supporters and campaign staff.
Independent candidate Mohammad Qarazi, in contrast, only has seven Facebook fan pages. This reflects his overall minimalist approach to campaigning, which he once described as being tantamount to “squandering money.” Qarazi has not even set up a campaign headquarters, while his Facebook page boasts that “I don’t have a team, spokesman or budget.”
Although all candidates have used the Internet and social media as a means of campaigning, conservative candidate Ali Akbar Velayati has preferred to rely on more traditional media, namely radio and television. Despite this, he has also made use of a number of websites, most prominently the Hezbollah News Network. This website is predominantly a platform for Velayati and Ayatollah Khamenei’s latest speeches. There are also 26 Facebook pages supporting Velayati's candidacy.
Aside from the official candidates, there has also been some online activity to attempt to influence the election from other quarters. Russian chess legend Garry Kasparov, for instance, launched the online "We Choose" campaign, which ran a mock presidential election for Iranians. Human rights advocates and technology experts joined Kasparov in the campaign, which sought to provide "a secure Virtual Voting Platform … to give the Iranian people the opportunity to participate in secure, fair and open elections."
The candidates listed on the website include many potential leaders who did not get a chance to register candidacies. The list of the candidates includes the current presidential candidates and 12 other figures, including disqualified candidates Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Mojahedin-e Khalq leader Maryam Rajavi, reformist leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, and even former crown prince Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed shah.