Social networking’s influence in the realm of public diplomacy and cross-cultural communications is becoming ever clearer. An article published in IslamOnline (“Iran’s Crisis in the Western Media” ) inadvertently highlights the power of sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to give voice to the once-voiceless in the seminal events of contemporary history.
“It seems that the battle lines and areas of the current confrontation with Iran are being drawn up by the media. In the virtual world of media hype and opinion, it is obvious that the recent Iranian elections are deliberately being manipulated and distorted by the Western media,” writes the author. “This exploitation has also extended to the online world, taking advantage of sites like Facebook and Twitter for propaganda purposes.”
One has come to expect the standard assertions from apologists for Middle Eastern autocrats (both those who are hostile to and those who are friendly with the U.S. government) that American media are controlled by the U.S. government. And certainly CNN and the New York Times take their hits in this article. What is fascinating, however, is how quickly new media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have achieved the same level of fear and loathing from these apologists in such a short amount of time.
The article blasts the U.S. media for “continuing its concerted propaganda campaign against Iran over charges that the government stole the June 12 presidential election.” In prose that nearly reaches self-parody, the author says of the brutal oppression of Iranian protestors: “Iran, like every other democratic country, has its own internal political strife and it would be naïve to expect the democratic process in this country to be unblemished and without controversy. This is the nature of democracy and politics.” He follows with the obligatory, “America is certainly the last country in the word to cast stones as it too has been mired in allegations of questionable electoral process in the past.”
It is one thing, however, to accuse the media in the United States (or, more typically, all Western media) of being the puppets of a heavy-lidded government propaganda machine. After all, in countries where the state does indeed control the media, such as Iran (and Saudi Arabia … and Egypt … and so repressively on …), where this kind of heavy-handed propaganda is the norm, it is easier to plant the seeds of doubt among the general population that the American media and indeed all Western media must also operate in a similar manner. Since the general public gets their “news” only from state-controlled organs, what else do they have to go on? It’s not like the average Iranian citizen has had the chance to grab a cup of coffee with Christiane Amanpour or George Will and learn how the news process actually works in America.
The same can’t be said of their own friends, neighbors and fellow citizens, however. And this is where statist governments and their apologists will run aground when they try to lump New Media in the same mold as traditional media – that is, government manipulated operatives helping Western imperialists seek hegemony over (insert repressive country or region of choice here).
“A site with visual impact like YouTube certainly has been successful in promoting a very biased and negative view of the elections,” observes IslamOnline. The observation is made with a knowing nod, the implication being that this is just another example of Western bias and government manipulation of the media.
Here’s the problem with that logic: The videos of beatings and shootings broadcast to the world weren’t posted by Americans. They weren’t posted by Westerners. Or affiliates of the Western media. They were posted by Iranian citizens.
The clerics who control the mechanisms of power in Iran, hidden behind the veil of a “democratically elected government,” cannot wave away the voices of their own people as being the voices of puppets of the West. They can try, and are obviously doing so. But the grieving Iranian families, friends and neighbors of Neda Soltan – the young woman who was shot through the heart on the streets of Tehran, and whose painful and sad last moments were captured by a fellow Iranian as she lay dying and then uploaded to YouTube – know that her death was not a manufactured hoax by some CIA operative in the hopes of spurring chaos in Iran. They know who filmed this awful event: It was them. They know that the anguished cries of grief and rage heard in the background are their own. They know that it was fellow Iranians who broadcast this footage for all the world to see.
The dictators of the world, throughout the world, can no longer blame the convenient bogeymen of their choosing – whether it be the imperialist West, the Great Satan, Communists or Trotsky – for their own failings and the suffering of their people. Of course, they will try. But the haunting eyes of Neda Soltan will make it that much harder.