WASHINGTON — What do Michael Jackson, Harry Potter and the Iranian election last year have in common? They were among the top Twitter trends in 2009.
Competing for the top spot on Twitter is a zero-sum game. The rise of one hashtag leads to the fall of another as Tweeters vie for public attention, and this fickle fame-game had dire consequences for the Iranian democratic movement in late June 2009, when Michael Jackson's death eliminated its Twitter presence at a critical moment.
The story of new media in Iran is old.
"Compared to other Middle Eastern countries, Iran has incredible Internet penetration rates, because enabling Internet access was a government plan" for several years before the 2009 elections, said Ali Scotten, a senior consultant at Persia House, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton's Iran center. The Internet appeared in Iran in 1994, and public Internet cafes opened in major cities more than a decade ago. Political dissidents quickly recognized the Internet as a powerful political tool to oppose the authoritarian regime, and Iranian experts such as Internet entrepreneur Mehdi Yahyanejad date the digital democracy movement to 1995.
At first, the regime didn't restrict access to the World Wide Web; in fact, the government started filtering websites only in 2003, according to Booz Allen's Persia House.
These early years of uncensored access and high penetration rates set a lasting precedent. Today, Scotten estimates that there are 26 million Internet users in Iran (35 percent of the domestic population), and that Iranians constitute 50 percent of all Middle Eastern Internet users. Farsi is the fourth most common blogging language in the world.
While the number of Internet users in Iran remains high, Internet access has suffered in recent years. When President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad took office in 2005, he condemned the Internet as a tool the "enemy" used to corrupt Iranian society, and in 2008, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance (MICG) proposed a Cyber Crime Bill to suppress digital material deemed immoral by Sharia, Islamic law.
These restrictive measures provoked violent student protests, and these protests acquired new fervor in the run-up to the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi used social networking sites to air his political beliefs and appeal to voters, ultimately creating a Facebook group of more than 100,000 supporters.
Sensing the stirrings of this democratic spirit in mid-2009, Ahmedinejad spent more than $500,000 to tighten control over what remained of Internet access before voters went to the polls, according to Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va..
In so doing, the government put itself on a crash course with pro-democracy protestors, and the collision occurred immediately after the election. As soon as incumbent president Ahmedinejad was declared the winner, opposition candidates Mousavi and Mohsen Rezaei accused Ahmedinejad's conservative party of rigging the election results.
The unrest spilled over into the public sphere, at which point the interplay between new media and democracy in Iran changed. Instead of providing a passive platform where reformists could build support by publicizing political perspectives and accumulating votes, social networking sites became active, real-time tools for defending democratic principles.
On June 13, the day the election results were made public, the Green Movement took to the streets to criticize the state and sparked a violent political struggle, nicknamed the "Persian Awakening."
A violent crackdown by the paramilitary Basij militia made it necessary for protestors to utilize new media not as a platform to publish their beliefs, but as a megaphone to broadcast a call to arms. They took advantage of two functions of digital media: its ability to organize rallies and to attract international attention.
The protestors' dependence on these two functions of new media, and specifically Twitter, to achieve both goals gave the movement another nickname: the "Twitter Revolution."
Does this second nickname overstate the importance of new media in the Persian Awakening? Evidence suggests no. As early as day one of the unrest, the U.S. State Department asked Twitter administrators to delay a website update that was scheduled for Monday, June 15 in order to ensure that the movement's communication capabilities continued uninterrupted.
Twitter also was essential to attracting international attention to the movement. When Basij forces killed Neda Agha-Soltan on June 20, fellow protestors filmed her death, and their videos went viral and made the Green Movement a global cause.
How did international Web users find the videos posted on YouTube and Facebook? Through Twitter alerts. The website provided a free and anonymous tool that allowed pro-democracy Iranians to provide real-time information to their compatriots, to the larger media industry and to international audiences — although not to Iranians in rural areas or otherwise without Internet access.
However, Neda's death also foreshadowed a third function of Twitter that eventually undermined the website's role as a friend of the Green Movement: its ability to distract users by diverting them to different sites such as YouTube and Facebook.
This distractive function of Twitter derailed the Green Movement at 2:40 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Thursday, June 25.
When the website TMZ broke the news of Michael Jackson's death, it also broke the World Wide Web. Between 2:40 and 3:15, Google users no longer could run searches because of the volume of queries for "Michael Jackson."
TMZ, as well as other popular gossip pages such as Perez Hilton's blog, crashed soon after. Even the news giants suffered from the increase in Internet traffic. Average download times at media sites such as AOL, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and Yahoo more than doubled, according to a BBC report. Twitter also crashed temporarily.
Although the Internet's failure was temporary, the damage done to the Iranian democratic movement was lasting.
As Michael Jackson Tweets climbed to 100,000 per hour, Iranian tweets were relegated to background noise. By 7 p.m. on June 25, Green Movement Tweets had disappeared from Twitter's trending topics; effectively erasing the political turmoil from Web users' consciousness.
In essence, Iran's Twitter Revolution died with the King of Pop.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Halley Aelion is an alumna of Davidson College and a 2010 Masters graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. This article is excerpted from a paper she wrote for a graduate class on Media and International Relations taught by McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott.