Iran and Political Clout of Social Media

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Behzad Khoshandam
PhD Student in International Relations

Active ImageSocial media like e-mail, photo sharing, social networking and text messaging have emerged as powerful political tools in the modern international system which are under strict control of big powers. They enjoy a special status in politico-social developments. Social movements seeking change in the Middle East have used such modern media as a means of achieving their political and social goals and they have been used to good effect in changing internal and regional power equations throughout the region.

Iran’s interaction or confrontation with social media and information networking has been among very important issues which can be analyzed from the viewpoint of western nature, complexity, civil qualities and networking potential invested in such media. Iran’s reaction to globalization is the key point to better understanding of the way Iran has been handling political influence of social media.

The fact that social media are new has sent social and political waves through the Iranian society as such media have elicited different, and at times conflicting, reactions in the Iranian society. The reaction shown to social media in Iran is reminiscent of the confrontation between the Iranian society and early waves of bourgeoisie in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Since most Iranians currently believe that social media embody a western phenomenon, there are speculations about such media being forerunners of new threats and conspiracies among the Iranian citizens living both within and without the country. In most cases, this way of thinking has proved to be a major barrier to assimilation of this modern phenomenon into political and social structures of Iran.

Another important issue is complexity of social media. Such characteristics as being multifaceted, versatility, and the potential for positive and negative functions as well as the ability to be rapidly updated have led to various reactions in Iran. In reaction to use of social media in the soft war, three different discourses; that is, maintenance of the status quo, change, and an intermediate discourse, have emerged in Iran as instruments of both fundamental and gradual social and political changes in the Iranian society.

The civil quality of social media has caused doubts in the Iranian society about rapid recognition of or serious confrontation with such new international media. There are many Iranian people, both among the public and elites, who believe that despite their civil façade, social media are used as new means of control by major international actors in order to serve their interests in confrontation with the country’s Iranian and Islamic interests and identity.

At last, none of these variables has been more challenging and led to more controversies among domestic and international Iran experts than the ability and potential for building networks to interact and even counteract the social media. The main reason behind those controversies has been diverging views on the close relationship between political power and networking potential of social media in the political interactions which take place in the public, regional and international spheres. As put by Richard Haas, under present international circumstances, the power is shared in many places. Therefore, it should be noted that networking potential of the social media is a two-edged sword which can be both an opportunity and a threat to Iran.

On the whole, globalizing impact of social media is an emerging trend in international arena. Like all other modern phenomena, Iran has been reeling under the impact of this new phenomenon. Faced with western nature, civil qualities and networking potential of social media, Iran has been wondering as to whether recognize or reject their political power. However, this new source of power is sure to bring Iran under tremendous pressure within framework of upcoming political developments.

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