" Digital Iran: Social Media, Society and Politics After 2009"

The proposed panel aims to bring together scholars for the purpose of exploring the social and political impacts of Information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Iran since the disputed presidential elections in 2009. The panel will mainly focus on social media as Internet-based applications that operate as networks of sociability with political potential. The emergence of networking cultures in Iran goes along with the development of new ideas, discourses and group solidarities through means of digital technologies, which produce social relations in virtual fields of interaction. The panel participants seek to rethink the informational dynamics in Iran in terms of the complex relationship between society and state. They consider the Internet as a site of not only reproduction but also challenge of cultural practices, and a platform to both regulative and transgressive potentials. The panel presenters will address several questions: How do political institutions and collective processes (social movements) manifest themselves or interact through the Internet? How have social media practices through Facebook, Instagram, Cloob and other networking sites contributed to new forms of interaction and sociability in relation to class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality? What has been the role of state power in regulating the Internet since 2009 (and, by extension, the complex unintended consequences of a centralizing censorship regime with the establishment of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace in 2012)? How do state actors benefit from the potential of social media? How has Internet culture change since the election of Hasan Rouhani in 2013, particularly in the context of US-Iran relations and the ongoing nuclear negotiations? By discussing the role and the effects of social media practices since 2009, the panel seeks to deepen our understanding of current social and political developments in Iran.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Babak Rahimi & Marcus Michaelsen
University of California, San Diego

Discussant

David Faris
Roosevelt University

Schedule

Room 46
Wed, 2016-08-03 10:30 - 12:00

Presentations

by Nima Rassooli / University of California, San Diego

This paper provides a critical analysis of the Persian social networking sites, with a focus on the popular social site, Balatarin. Founded in 2006, Balatarin is, as aptly described by its co-founder, Aziz Ashufteh, a kind of “news and content aggregator” that promotes dynamic interactivity between Persian speaking users on both national and transnational levels. Balatarin serves as a distinct collective blog site with crowdsourcing capacities that exemplify a transnational Persian language site in the form of an alternative platform for political discussion, circulation of information and news. The paper argues Balatarin, similar to various online practices in emerging Persian social sites, facilitate and also limit political activism in the broader context of transnational communication and market processes. The site involves an exclusionary politics, a process that accelerated after the 2009 election unrests, when discussions on the site effectively became more regulated by administrators, primarily comprised of Green Movement activists, who subscribed to Balatarin. The study provides analysis of case studies of such exclusionary political practices in its online format, and discusses the discursive ways such exclusion is performed in the context of social media processes. The paper concludes with the claim that all forms of politics, including online politics, are about a contentious field of idealism and practice, and varied ways through which online political communities become products of historical circumstances and of competing political persuasions.

by Marcus Michaelsen / University of Amsterdam

Iranian state actors have adopted digital media as a flexible and influential means of communication. While websites and blogs serve as platforms mostly for domestic consumption, social media are used by leading regime officials to target international audiences: the Supreme Leader, the President and the Foreign Minister use Twitter and Facebook to comment on political affairs in English, most prominently in the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. Social media networks give them the opportunity to publish their views with great immediacy and to enter international news cycles. The interactive character of these media helps to create an impression of exchange and dialogue, sometimes even accountability. It can be argued that the attempts to shape international public opinion can be seen as part of a legitimation strategy to advance foreign policy goals. But to what extent are these communication strategies successful? How do international media react to the messages posted on social media? And how do social media accounts of Iranian officials integrate into global communication networks? In order to answer these questions the paper analyses a collection of Twitter messages by leading state officials and dissects the framing given to these communications. It will then investigate the reception of the messages in a selection of international media in order to show which messages get picked up and whether their framing is changed or perpetuated. The paper thus seeks to contribute to the ongoing academic debate on the benefits that state actors in authoritarian systems draw from pro-active usages of digital information and communication technologies.

by Babak Rahimi / University of California, San Diego

Instagram, the mobile photo-sharing social networking site, is one of the most popular social media sites among Iranian Internet users. From snapshots of urban life to selfies taken at private homes, instagram features Iranians of various walks of life, revealing their intimate and personal lives in digital photographic form. Accounts such as “Richkidsoftehran” showcase the daily lives of rich Iranians, swimming, snowboarding, or driving luxury cars that reveal extravagant lifestyles in urban settings. They reveal multifaceted realities of daily life in Iran, lives that are captured through the lens of instagrammers who share their experiences in creative and visual ways. The argument the paper advances is that instagram photography is a form of visual cultural practice that dissolves the boundaries between public and private, and accordingly entails the potential for politics. As a technology of vision, Iranian instagram exemplifies practices that breakdown distinct normative boundaries within the strictures of social life under the Islamic Republic for new experiences of sociability and togetherness. Such experiences are not always political, but in the context of visual cultures of daily life, and how they are reproduced (or shared) in social media, can become potentially political in the complicated context of society and state relations. As a case study, the paper examines the instagram account of Reihane Taravati, one of the six young Iranians detained for appearing in an online video dancing to Pharrell William’s “Happy” video. Among other cases, it discusses the range of imaging and photographic practices that operate in tandem with shifting practices of self-representation in the public and managed in intricate ways under the Islamic Republic. The paper finally examines the complicated relationship between politics and technology and critically apprises a growing body of literature that views such relationship in binary terms of freedom or censorship.

by Niki Akhavan / The Catholic University of America

The disputed 2009 election in Iran resulted in a number of political realignments: while some figures and factions doubled down, much of the establishment and its supporters were shaken. This instability was reflected in the digital arena, where one’s position on the election and its aftermath served as a litmus test beyond which further conversation was shut down. Rouhani’s election in 2013 and the developments in the nuclear negotiations with the United States brought another kind of political uncertainty for hardline supporters of the ruling establishment, who now had to deal with the recuperation of their two main foes: the United States and the reformists. Rather than serving as clarification or reassurance, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s pronouncements on the negotiations and the administration’s negotiators have fueled further confusion. Unlike centralized media platforms such as state television and official websites that can be used to present a unified domestic position, social media reveal the internal tensions around emerging international dynamics. This paper considers the changes in Iran’s Internet culture following the election of Rouhani with a focus on how social media have become sites where political inconsistencies around the US-Iran negotiations are exposed and negotiated. While anxieties around shifts in the Iran-US relationship are most evident among hardliners, similar concerns abound among American social media contributions, including those of Iranian-Americans. The paper also examines this broader context and what it reveals about the role that social media plays in shaping how Iranians and Americans interact both directly and symbolically online and off.