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New Texts Out Now: Negar Mottahedeh, #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life

[Cover of Negar Mottahedeh, [Cover of Negar Mottahedeh, "#iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life"]

Negar Mottahedeh, #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Negar Mottahedeh (NM): Writing ‪#‎iranelection was for me about the witnessing of a sea-change brought about in our life as global citizens by an epic solidarity around the first long trending global hashtag in 2009. No social media platform had seen masses of people from all over the world engage one another about something that happened in a country that was largely foreign to many of them. What I saw was people from the remotest corners of the world, like Alaska, to the most populated cities in China and the United States, participate in a people’s uprising by collaborating around the hashtag #iranelection and transmitting time sensitive information about what was happening in Iran using this hashtag.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NM: In the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian Presidential election, there was a global uprising online and on the ground in Iran in response to the demand by the Iranian people to have a recount of the vote. Millions believed that their vote was never counted. The state denied the free expression of this movement in Iran, dictated an end to the protests, and actively engaged in a violent suppression of the voices of the people. Hundreds died and thousands were imprisoned.

Hundreds of thousands of subscribers on Twitter engaged the hashtag #iranelection for over a year to reclaim the vote of the Iranian people and to protest and record the violence of the state against its own. Flickr, Yfrog, Twitpic, and YouTube became the extensions of this act of witnessing. In the book I show how through this conscientious global solidarity, people became “black boxes” for one another. They kept a record and bore witness to what they saw happen to each other. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube became the sites they are today because millions used them globally to record and circulate the violations of the Iranian state against the protesters. The global figure of the citizen journalist was born in this moment in history. And we realized in that moment, back in 2009, that, as Jay Smooth said in the aftermath of the #‎WalterScott murder: “In that worst case scenario, the only Black Box available—Is Us.”

That recognition, that solidarity around the hashtag #iranelection in 2009, reshaped the whole ecology of online life forever. Twitter changed. Facebook changed. Google changed. Even CNN changed. In fact, mainstream media took on a whole different character because of #iranelection. It was during the first week of the Iranian election crisis, for example, that YouTube announced on Twitter that CNN was streaming #iranelection videos from the protests in Iran from YouTube’s platform. That was unheard of! YouTube was a relatively new social media platform and mainstream media was still hesitant to use social media as a source for its information and updates. That has all changed in the course of the six years since #iranelection, especially since YouTube changed its policies around what you can and cannot post on their site. Social media is now a constant source of breaking news for mainstream media. News breaks on Twitter first and news outlets like CNN are always watching what is being posted there. Twitter is no longer where we go to update everyone on what we had for lunch or to discuss scenes from our favorite shows; it is where we go to be everyone’s eyes and ears in our cities and neighborhoods. I would say that Twitter’s new Periscope app represents this transformation that took place for social media precisely with its byline: “Explore the world through someone else’s eyes.”

[#iranelection trending on Twitter after the 2009 election. Image via the author.]

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NM: In Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (2008), I began describing the anatomy of the Islamic cyborg as a construct born out of Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision for media technologies after the1979 Iranian Revolution. In the vision that Khomeini had for Iran, he aimed to create a new people: a powerful people who could stand up to imperialism, a people guided by the principles of dignity and modesty in Islam. This transformation had to happen on a mass scale and it had to happen on the most intimate level of perception and behavior. Since media acts as the collective eyes and the ears of the people, he identified the media as the site for this mass transformation. Once the eyes and the ears of the media were cleansed to abide by Islamic values, so too would the senses of the masses of people who saw and heard the world through these media. This is what I mean by the Islamic cyborg. The Iranian nation as an Islamic nation was the born out of the cleansing of media technologies according to Islamic values.

In #iranelection—thirty years after the Revolution—the Islamic cyborg is fully formed. It is part flesh and part data. It sees through the eyes of technology because technology is part of its constitution, part of its vision and values. During the Iranian election crisis it engaged YouTube to call on the Divine to intervene in the violence perpetuated by the very state that first envisioned the Islamic cyborg. An example of this is the work of the rooftop poet who recorded people’s cries of “Allah-u-Akbar” at night and directed these videos to God so that he would hear people’s cries and wake up to the violence perpetuated by the Islamic Republic in his name.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NM: #iranelection is a book that brings home to a Western, English speaking audience the realization that what happens in a different part of the world has a significant impact on the life we lead in the isolation and safety of our homes. What happens in the Middle East may seem far away, but how we engage with it changes our entire ecology. In this case, I show how engaging with Iran changed the way we live on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. As Nick Mirzoeff has remarked, this book is about "the history of the present." It brings a historical perspective to the "vexed question of the interactions of social media and social change.” The global solidarity around the long-trending hashtag #iranelection in 2009 changed how we dealt with the social crisis during #Occupy and how we continue to engage with race issues in America. #iranelection deeply impacted how we see and engage with social disparities, state violence, prejudice, and injustice in mainstream media as well. A long and lasting collaboration by hundreds and thousands of people around one hashtag, #iranelection, transformed the entire media landscape.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NM: Lots of people feel isolated on many-to-many social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. I am working on launching programming online that will support people in finding and making deep connections with their peers globally, with what I call their "digital tribe.” The public programing will coincide with a course that I will be teaching to students at Duke University called “Hashtags, Memes, and Digital Tribes.” This will be in addition two other signature courses: “Social Movements and Social Media” and “The #Selfie,” a course that my students have been super excited about.

[Negar Mottahedeh. Photo by Golbarg Bashi, via the author.]

I also have another book project in the works on cinema and the environment: on oil, wind, and light in cinema, more specifically.

J: How do you see the protest movement represented by the hashtag "#iranelection," both on the ground and online, as having changed and developed since its inception in 2009?

NM: The movement is still very much alive and is engaged on Twitter in pressuring the Iranian government to release journalists, students, activists, and protestors who were imprisoned during the uprising and in the six years that followed. It is hard to imagine that the Iranian nuclear deal would have happened without the energetic engagement of a global population around the hashtag #iranelection six years earlier.

Excerpt from #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life

What if our only hope—and the only hope for the integrity of life online, of life, period—is our passionate sense of radical kinship and an unwavering commitment to solidarity against oppression?

On the six-year anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent presidential election, I was reminded of who we were to each other when Twitter was fresh and still not quite tainted by the self-promotion and commercialism that defines it today.

It may be hard to recall that sense of euphoria that dominated Iranian national politics during the presidential campaigns in the spring of 2009. In the course of the thirty-year history of the theocratic state, no one could remember another time when Iranian state television had broadcast such lively debates among the presidential candidates. After leaving a rally for the then-sitting president Ahmadinejad, Time magazine correspondent Joe Klein described a crowd of tens of thousands filtering into downtown. The Ahmadinejad rally was ending just as a rally for his opponent, reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was finishing up. Supporters on both sides flooded the streets and squares in a mood of camaraderie, of playfulness. “It seemed as if someone had opened a magic door,” Klein wrote, “and an entire country had spilled out.”

This wasn’t just a feeling. Things looked lively, too. Color was everywhere. Campaign paraphernalia, campaign headquarters, and campaigners themselves were clearly differentiated: Those supporting the incumbent president waved the Iranian flag, while Mousavi’s followers stood out in vibrant green. It was a nod to the distinctive green shawl—the color assigned to the family of the Prophet—their candidate wore during one of the presidential debates.

But on election day, the mood turned stark. Before the polls were even closed, Ahmadinejad’s victory was announced with sixty-three percent of the votes cast. Millions believed their votes were never counted. Immediately, Iranians took to the streets. Within minutes, images of masses of people wearing green armbands, finger-bands, and headbands filling the vast boulevards, squares, and bridges of the Iranian cityscape were posted to Twitter and Facebook.

As supporters shared pictures from the protests and put green overlays on their avatar images to express solidarity, Twitter became awash with the color green. The date—12 June 2009—became the official genesis of Iran’s Green Movement.

That summer, solidarity around the hashtag #iranelection had Twitter subscribers everywhere changing their geolocation to Tehran to protect those who were actually tweeting from the ground in Iran. For eight months, hundreds of thousands of us came together in solidarity around #iranelection, making it the longest trending topic in Twitter’s global history.

That hashtag solidarity was unprecedented. Back then hashtags (as symbols for keywords and search topics) weren’t used except on Twitter, and even those weren’t hyperlinked. Such clickable hashtags came about just as people were using the hashtag #iranelection to express support and share vital information. As bloggers and journalists, like Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, were being arrested for merely reporting on the protest marches, hyperlinked hashtags made it feel as if we were all marching together, linked, as one people, against injustice.

The solidarity was critical. It forced the Iranian authorities to release Bahari (although many journalists and protestors still remain in prison). But critical, too, was the change in our engagement with social media. Flickr, Yfrog, Twitpic, and YouTube became the extension of our acts of witnessing. They became the sites we used to record and circulate the violations of the state against its own people. The ongoing act of solidarity reshaped the whole ecology of online life forever.

The stories of protest spread worldwide in real time, but among them all, one stood out: the story of Neda Agha-Soltan, the twenty-six-year-old woman who was brutally shot and murdered by the state paramilitary (basij) in Tehran a week after the election. She was not the first civilian casualty of the 2009 uprising—in fact, hospital sources confirmed that by 22 June, thousands had been injured and forty-seven killed by government forces in Tehran alone. But Neda’s death was captured on a handheld device and immediately uploaded, circulating first on Facebook, then on Twitter. In an instant she went from an innocent bystander who curiously led her music teacher into a crowd of peaceful protestors, to a martyr with historic significance.

Hundreds of thousands of people watched the video online and reposted it. Her name, Neda—“voice” or “calling” in Persian—became the rallying cry for the Iranian opposition. On Twitter #Neda was the highest-ranking hashtag on 20 June 2009, indicating tens of thousands of posts on the day of her death. Moved by her gruesome death and the hashtag solidarity that rallied against the injustices she came to stand for, Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Prize in Neda’s name. She was lauded as one of the top ten heroes of 2009 by Time.

Urgent, unjust, and lengthy, the Iranian postelection crisis galvanized and transformed the ecology of life online such that the tropes of #iranelection, its valuation of standing “friend/follower” networks and citizen reporting, its engagement with avatar activism, its relentless circulation of digital images, its immediate retweeting of YouTube videos, its hacks, memes, and viral transmissions, its flash mobs and text-the-regime campaigns, 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.

[Excerpted from Negar Mottahedeh, #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life, by permission of the author. © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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