Negar Mottahedeh. #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015. 152 pp. $12.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-9587-6.
Reviewed by Andy Forney (Texas Christian University)
Published on H-War (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Social media feels different than other media. And, to an extent, it is. Global interaction has increased exponentially, with people the world over able to interact with each other in real time. Many commentators (most notably Thomas Friedman) have taken this interconnectedness to mean that “the world is flat:” no longer inhibited by barriers of distance or temporality, the world stands ready to be remade. Interconnected citizens, or “netizens,” now experience the effects of a fuller democracy as “citizen journalists” expand their reach and capture events as they unfold, sharing them within a global information environment. The Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, the Euromaidan in Ukraine, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong--all of these sociopolitical protests grew from a linked campaign of social media awareness and activism. The widely viewed images and videos of the deaths of unarmed black men and women in the United States over the last two years has not only given rise to Black Lives Matter (another creation of social media), but also recast the 2016 presidential campaign in a way most political prognosticators thought unlikely a year before.
Negar Mottahedeh believes that the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran marked the first true social media protest campaign. An accomplished media critic specializing primarily in feminist literature and cinema, Mottahedeh examines the intersection of political protest and social media proliferation during the unrest following the reportedly fixed reelection of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Her book, #iranelection, charts the symbols and slogans of the protest movement, drawing forward linkages from the past--the protest against the reinstatement of the shah in the 1950s and the 1979 Islamic Revolution--to the present. Social media changed the aspect and scope of the street-level protests, however. Mottahedeh argues that the global solidarity that social media enabled changed the very way that humans structured reality and their self-valuation. “Urgent, unjust, and lengthy,” she writes, “the Iranian postelection crisis galvanized and transformed the ecology of life online such that the tropes of #iranelection, its aggregation of an international mass movement around a uniform global hashtag … became part of a sensing, breathing, collective body, part flesh, part data, connected across the globe by way of a continual exchange of digital sights and sounds on social media” (p. 8).
The 2009 Green Revolution occurred during a unique point in media history. Although Facebook and Youtube had both already found traction globally, Twitter had just barely initiated its social media dominance, and other familiar apps, like Snapchat and Instagram, had not been founded. Older forms of media, predominantly cable news and online pages of more traditional news outlets (newspapers, magazines, etc.), still dominated the media information market. Mottahedeh describes how CNN’s initial underreporting of the postelection crisis, then exclusion from the Iranian media space, transposed the previous relationships between social and establishment media. Social media, often under the hashtag #CNNfail, brought the story of political unrest to the global fore, exposing rampant regime violence to a newly attuned and expanding set of netizens. Establishment media, at first ignoring the story, found itself relying on social media to report the growing unrest once the Iranian regime prohibited their broadcasts from Tehran. “This transformation of the media environment,” Mottahedeh writes, “affected the ecology of global life” (p. 13).
Within Iran, the lengthy political crisis took place within a media space that contested temporality, symbology, and geography. The best example of this is the yelling of “Allah-o-akbar!” (“God is great!”) from the roof of numerous homes and buildings in Tehran. Mottahedeh shows how a simple act of defiance (security forces instituted a strict curfew within the capital to prevent nocturnal congregation of protestors) came to represent many things on multiple levels of understanding. Protestors invoked the name of god much as their predecessors had done in the overtly religious revolution of 1979, now envisioning Allah less as a force of anticolonialism and more as a symbol of social justice and equality. Beseeching Allah made the protests ahistorical and grounded them within a timeless narrative of struggle. At the same time, the act of crying Allah’s name aloud within a closed and dark city proved the absolute concreteness and historicity of the now; such defiance brought forward the individual against the state, and in Iran, the state claimed absolute religious power. To add to this spider web of confounding narratives, social media captured these acts of defiance and wove them into the media ecology. Global netizens could share their own late night cries to Allah as a display of solidarity with the protestors. “Sharing” became three things: viewing content on social media, sharing images and symbols within the sphere of social media, and participating in the protests “virtually” through the assumption of the symbol’s power.
At its core, the 2009 Green Revolution, and to an extent #iranelection, depends on the understanding of “memes.” Today thought of as colloquial images and humorous sayings shared online, media critics first defined memes as thought packages possessing a deep symbolic resonance that observers and participants transmit virally through a society (think “going viral”). Memetic contestation took the fore during the Green Revolution in an unsuspecting way. Iranian security forces arrested Majid Tavakoli, a citizen journalist, early during the protests. They then decided to display him on state television in a woman’s black chador, the robe worn by most women in Iran as dictated by the state religious authorities. Intending to portray Tavakoli as an effeminate enemy of the state, Iranian authorities misfired. The robeing of Tavakoli drew symbolic linkage with Neda Agha-Soltani, a female music student killed by paramilitary forces during the unrest. Netizens reacted to the robed image of Tavakoli by themselves donning chadors or veils. This image of gender-bending solidarity embraced the chador, a key symbol of religious authoritarianism within Iran, as a sign of defiance. At the same time, women took to real and virtual space to protest the regime by donning bright colors and emphasizing the feminine in defiance of the chador. Manicured hands, headbands, and bright ribbons stood out against a sea of dark chadors, women waging a symbolic war not just in the squares of Tehran, but also on Facebook and Youtube.
Mottahedeh’s narrative is impassioned; at times her writing borders on the breathless and you can sense her excitement. Readers should realize what the work is not, though. While #iranellection’s back cover trumpets it as “a prehistory, of sorts, of the use of hashtags, trending topics, selfies and avatar activism,” the work feels divorced from the now. While offering exquisite and in-depth analysis of the social media ecology of the 2009 Green Revolution, it foregoes a chronology. The heroically tragic figure yelling “Allah-o-akbar!” into the night sky does not exist within a grounded historical timeline that integrates events, actions, and rhetoric into a holistic construction. This may be due to the Green Revolution’s lack of closure; at some point people quit gathering, men took off their chadors, and solitary figures no longer cried out to Allah in the dark. The last several years have ushered in a period of reform and moderation within the Iranian state and the contested media space of 2009 appears, now, far more tranquil.
In a grander scope, how can we judge the revolutionary nature of social media? Did social media change the nature of popular protest, or just amplify and modify the character? The social media engendered protests discussed above started with much promise, but have left uncertain futures; witness the paroxysms of violence and dissent within Egypt. Mottahedeh is correct that social media has expanded the scope of popular dissent and reaffirmed our shared humanity in the face of the neoliberal commodification of our daily lives. “Its appearance on the world stage,” she writes of the social media movement in support of the Iranian protestors, “is symptomatic of a melancholic failure to reclaim as our own the most fundamental loss, a loss that if recognized would effectively transform all of us. The loss, to name it, is that of true kinship--of an encompassing human solidarity” (p. 104). But these connections and affirmations do not always signify compassion and fraternity. ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and the Ku Klux Klan have all used social media to branch out and grow a global citizenship that objectifies the other in the same affirmation that Mottahedeh speaks of. The tortured human psyche, grappling with its own sense of oppression, may not realize, nor care, with whom exactly it seeks to commune.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Andy Forney. Review of Mottahedeh, Negar, #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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