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Esfandiari, Petrossians Talk New Media in Iran

RFE/RL's Fred Petrossians (second from left) and Golnaz Esfandiari (center) joined bloggers at the US Institute of Peace (8Jul2010)
RFE/RL's Fred Petrossians (second from left) and Golnaz Esfandiari (center) joined bloggers at the US Institute of Peace (8Jul2010)
When it comes to new forms of social media online, "activists are always one step ahead of the government." So said RFE/RL's senior correspondent, Golnaz Esfandiari, who participated in a Thursday discussion at the US Institute of Peace on the impact of new media on political conflict. Esfandiari and Radio Farda's online editor Fred Petrossians shared their expertise on the impact of tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube on Iranian politics. Yet, while bloggers and other web-savvy dissenters may be turning the Iranian regime in knots, Esfandiari and Petrossians emphasized that their ability to effect real change is still very limited.
Many Iranian agitators on Twitter are exiles based abroad, well removed from the bullets and clubs of the Basij militia.

Twitter received an avalanche of attention during the protests of last year's Green Revolution across Iran's cities. But, as Esfandiari noted at USIP - and in a recent "Foreign Policy" essay - much of this publicity was pure hype. Not only are there just a relative handful of active tweeters inside Iran, but most of these commentators are focused on apolitical topics such as "their social lives, poetry, and jokes." Many Iranian political agitators on Twitter, Esfandiari said, are exiles in Europe or North America who are well removed from the bullets and clubs of the pro-regime Basij militia.

"People on Twitter were actually misleading the public about what was happening on the streets in Iran," she said, "People outside the country were telling those inside to go out and get killed."

And not all social media outlets are created equal. Petrossians and Esfandiari pointed out that Facebook has emerged as a growing and powerful tool in the hands of ordinary Iranians, and is used by a wider cross-section of Iranian society. Indeed, in advance of last June's elections, according to Petrossians, the Iranian government opened access to social media like Facebook with the expectation that conservative bloggers and activists would dominate the space. Instead, Esfandiari reported, Iranians turned to discussion threads on Facebook as a means of exchanging information about the election and its violent aftermath. Presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi continues to employ his Facebook page as a vital means of communication with Iran's internet uers.

Petrossians and Esfandiari were joined by a gaggle of other international bloggers - Mialy Andriamananjara, Raed Jarrar, Onnik Krikorian, and Naseem Tarawnah - in addition to headliners Marc Lynch, Ethan Zuckerman, and State Department advisor Alec Ross. Ross's own Twitter account (288,000 followers) created a media frenzy recently in Syria, when he and fellow State media guru Jared Cohen tweeted their way through cake eating competitions and frappucino runs. Lynch, Zuckerman and Ross discussed a new report released by the USIP (but not yet available online) on "New Media in Contentious Politics." The results of the report? Not surprisingly, there are still "major obstacles" to quantifying the political impact of social media outlets.

Appropriately enough, USIP kept a running Twitter feed of the conference, which you can view here. Also worth checking out? The tweets of RFE/RL's Ladan Nekoomaram.

--Charles Dameron