Are the Internet and other New Media Failing Iran’s Activists?

Morozov Over at Prospect, Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky debate the question. Morozov:

One possible reading of the current situation on the ground in Tehran is that, despite all the political mobilisation facilitated by social media, the Iranian government has not only survived, but has, in fact, become even more authoritarian. The changes currently taking place in Iran are far from positive: a catastrophic brain drain triggered by the recent political repressions, a series of violent crackdowns on politically active university students who have chosen to remain in the country, the persecution of critical bloggers, journalists and editors, the appointment of more conservative ministers to the government, and mounting pressure on dissident politicians. From this perspective, the last six months could be taken to reveal the impotence of decentralised movements in the face of a ruthless authoritarian state—even when those movements are armed with modern protest tools.

Focusing on the frequency and the intensity of protests—as Shirky does in his response to my essay—may infuse us with unjustified optimism.


The basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronised public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public (the monarchies of Europe, in Habermas’s telling, become authoritarian governments within the contemporary scenario). Put another way, even taking into account the increased availability of surveillance, the net value of social media has shifted the balance of power in the direction of Iran’s citizens.

As Evgeny notes, however, that hypothesis might be wrong. Or, if it is right, the ways in which it is right might be minor, or rare, or take decades to unfold.

Yet while the Ahmadinejad regime is clearly willing to use event-based internet filtering, whereby mobile network coverage or internet access is temporarily blocked—a strategy we might call a “temporary Burma”—I do not believe that Iran can become a “permanent Burma.” The kind of information shutdown required to keep all forms of public assembly from boiling over will be beyond the authorities in Iran.