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Rebuilding Online Communities In Iran

Radio Farda Online Editor in Chief Fred Petrossians speaks at the Ars Electronica conference in Austria on "myths and reality of Twitter."
Iran’s internet landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, according to RFE/RL’s Fred Petrossians, online editor in chief for Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Persian language service.

Widely recognized as an expert on social media in Iran, Petrossians regularly speaks at international conferences on the topic, and is a co-author of “Hope, Votes and Bullets,” a book about Iran’s protest movement and social media.

At recent conferences in Germany, Sweden, Kenya, and Canada he discussed the shift away from blogs in favor of Facebook and Twitter among media activists in Iran. He has also spoken about a lack of dynamism in online activism recently.

Petrossians says that since 2009, the protest movement in Iran and its presence online has stagnated. Mass demonstrations following disputed presidential elections that year were seen in the West, often erroneously, as heralding the arrival of the Twitter age to Iran. The swift reaction by the government to punish the protesters succeeded in quieting much online activity, and what remained was deprived of vitality because of a lack of new platforms and ideas.

“The bitter reality is that while the protest movement used social networking and citizen media in a significant way in 2009 during the hot days of protest, at present, Iranian cyber activists are simply recycling the same virtual environment without any innovation or successful use of Western media innovation.”

To the extent that independent voices do make themselves heard online, Petrossians says social media has replaced blogs as the predominant platform--especially Facebook--even though it is still blocked in Iran and users have to find ways to circumvent the censors through proxy servers.

“The blogosphere is losing its dominance as a platform for netizens and cyber activists, and on Facebook and Twitter you lose your identity a bit. The platform doesn’t define your activity the way a blog does,” said Petrossians. “People don’t write long posts on Facebook or Twitter like they used to write on blogs, and so I think the message has changed as well. They attract a larger audience, but the nature of the message has changed.”

Though the length of the messages is shorter than in blogs, Radio Farda has benefited from the increased reach offered by social media, having recently surpassed 1 million fans on Facebook.

The immense popularity of Facebook has not gone unnoticed by the regime. At least three Radio Farda journalists this year have been the subject of fake Facebook profiles and blogs that post false information with the aim of discrediting them. Radio Farda’s Facebook page has also been hacked.

Several high-ranking officials themselves maintain a strong presence on social media though state censorship of those sites is in effect for everyone else. Despite promises on the part of the recently-elected President Hassan Rohani to reduce online censorship, Petrossians says online censorship in Iran is as robust as ever, though there have been some newspaper and magazine articles published since Rohani took office that were unimaginable before.

Petrossians also spoke to conference participants about the role of the Iranian diaspora in promoting free expression on social media. While a powerful resource, he warns the diaspora can sometimes lose touch with ground truth in Iran and become “trapped in its own bubble.”

“Diasporas can talk online and spread messages quickly, but the heart and the soul of the country must be involved or nothing will happen,” he said.

Recognizing that Iranians in Iran are apt to get caught in a virtual bubble, too, Petrossians recommends platforms like, a site that facilitates face-to-face meetings of people with similar interests at parks and cafes.

Petrossians concludes that the way forward for online communities fighting against censorship in Iran is to transition to platforms that bring like-minded people together in real life, maximizing exposure and the genuine exchange of ideas.

--Emily Thompson