#iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life

#iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life

by Negar Mottahedeh

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The protests following Iran's fraudulent 2009 Presidential election took the world by storm. As the Green Revolution gained protestors in the Iranian streets, #iranelection became the first long-trending international hashtag. Texts, images, videos, audio recordings, and links connected protestors on the ground and netizens online, all simultaneously transmitting and living a shared international experience.

#iranelection follows the protest movement, on the ground and online, to investigate how emerging social media platforms developed international solidarity. The 2009 protests in Iran were the first revolts to be catapulted onto the global stage by social media, just as the 1979 Iranian Revolution was agitated by cassette tapes. And as the world turned to social media platforms to understand the events on the ground, social media platforms also adapted and developed to accommodate this global activism. Provocative and eye-opening, #iranelection reveals the new online ecology of social protest and offers a prehistory, of sorts, of the uses of hashtags and trending topics, selfies and avatar activism, and citizen journalism and YouTube mashups.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804795876
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 07/15/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 152
Sales rank: 1,093,283
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Negar Mottahedeh is Associate Professor in Literature and Women's Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (2008) and Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran (2007).

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Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life

By Negar Mottahedeh


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9673-6


HASHTAG: #CNNfail & the slogans of the 2009 Iranian election crisis

The figure of the citizen journalist was born out of the glitches of the Iranian postelection crisis of 2009. A series of missteps gave birth to it, and the hashtag #CCNfail presided over the early moments of its birth as a global phenomenon.#CNNfail was associated in the first days of the Iranian protests with the hashtag #iranelection. It was used by Twitter subscribers to underscore CNN's documented failure to report a people's uprising. Recognizing the state of emergency, tweets expressed concern that CNN may have just shut down for the weekend. Instead of reporting on the revolt of a people against the injustices of a state, CNN was looping stories about a meth lab run by a grandmother in Nevada, about the surprising number of complaints around the disappearance of analog television, and on the bankruptcy of Six Flags amusement park. CNN's failure was to eschew a report on an international and collective act of popular dissent, in favor of corporate bids for bankruptcy in the United States.

On the ground in Tehran, BBC correspondent John Simpson and a camera operator were briefly arrested after filming the massive protests in the streets the day after the Iranian presidential election, and Jim Sciutto, an ABC News correspondent, said that the police had confiscated a camera and some of his footage. In response, Sciutto started using his cell phone to capture the protests against the election fraud and the police violence that was directed against the protestors. He posted his updates on Twitter. By June 16, foreign journalists started reporting that they were being banned from the protests. And within a week of the election, foreign journalists, Simpson and Sciutto included, would be summarily rounded up and sent home. Others, including the IranianCanadianNewsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, were imprisoned, some indefinitely.

Reflecting on Andrew Sullivan's active blog posts on the Iranian postelection crisis, one reader wrote: "Reading your blog over the past 30 something hours makes me realize why the [mainstream media] is really finished. I mean, this point has finally hit home. You are blogging real time events, with descriptions, evaluation, analysis, and eye witness accounts. You are gathering information from a myriad of sources and putting it out there for a cohesive message. CNN, NY Times, et al are merely running an article about 'thousands' of protesters. Its a canned message from just a few stale sources. The revolution is definitely on in Iran. And its on in American journalism too."

A real change in the ecology of global media was underway. News stations and newspapers began to rely heavily on social media for their stories during the course of the postelection crisis and CNN would refer its viewers to its online "iReport" section to review what it still called "amateur" videos from Iran. CNN International along with a handful of other news outlets, the New York Times, the Guardian Online, and the Los Angeles Times among them, started to regularly provide information that allowed users in Iran to upload videos, images, and other updates. These digital media would then be incorporated as "breaking" in news reports on Iran. Mainstream media outlets adopted, in most instances, new news formats that would prompt the anchor to explain what was being streamed from YouTube on in-studio monitors. The effects of this shift on journalism in general were profound and were also deeply felt in the op-ed pieces being printed in mainstream media around this time.

New York Times journalist Roger Cohen, mourning his loss of access as a foreign journalist, acknowledged in these moments the ascendency of the activist as citizen journalist. In the midst of the crisis he wrote, "Iranians have borne witness — with cellphone video images, with photographs, through Twitter and other forms of social networking — and have thereby amassed an ineffaceable global indictment of the usurpers of June 12. Never again will Ahmadinejad speak of justice without being undone by the Neda Effect."

On June 16, 2009, four days after the election, @persiankiwi tweeted that all foreign visas had been retracted, that most roads were blocked, and that Tehran hotels were under high security to prevent the foreign press from speaking to any Iranians. Though yet unconfirmed, hackers had reportedly infiltrated the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's and the reelected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's websites. These sites were now down along with IRIB's, the state television's, website. @persiankiwi and his team were now looking for aid from hackers outside the country to hack into additional government sites.

No one really knew who the person behind the Twitter handle @persiankiwi was at the time, but @persiankiwi started tweeting from Tehran with the hashtag #iranelection a day or so after the election results were announced, alternately anguished over getting timed out because of overburdened phone lines, or in absolute wonderment that people had once again taken to the rooftops to raise the call "Allah-o-akbar!" or "God is Great!" as he remembered they had done every night during the revolution against the Shah of Iran thirty years earlier. From the rooftops, he reported, they denounced in the same breath the Supreme Leader, the new dictator that now sat in the Shah's place. "2AM," @persiankiwi tweets on June 14, "and people still on roof shouting death to khamenei. a week ago that was unthinkable. people very fed up. want freedom. #Iranelection"

Always hours and sometimes days ahead of verified news, @persiankiwi came to attract tens of thousands of followers in the days that followed. Working with a nomadic group of three to four hackers (and apparently one doctor after one of the team members suffered a terrible injury at the hands of the state militia), armed with several video cameras, CB radios, and at various times numerous phone lines, @persiankiwi remained a reliable source of detailed information about the situation on the ground in Tehran. He continued to provide the coordinates for the opposition's innovative campaigns all over Iran until his sudden disappearance on June 24, 2009.

Among @persiankiwi's preoccupations during his predawn tweets, when the networks were fairly open, was the un-Islamic manner in which protestors were being treated and the inhumanity that was shown by the state as security forces and the paramilitary basij shot at the crowds, choked young children with teargas, axed protestors' bodies, and shoved them, bloody and lifeless, into vans.

Another concern, which like these preoccupations appeared in @persiankiwi's tweets — and that were reflected repeatedly in individual blogs and in the slogans of other protestors — was a resounding concern over Iran's state media. Despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of protestors in the streets, state radio and television persisted in covering up the protests. Not only was state television refusing to report on the uprising; it was broadcasting lies about the discrepancies in the election results, and running sitcoms and miniseries to create a lull in the citizenry.

The most obvious symptom of the state media's cover-ups were the glitchy screens that faced viewers as they turned to BBC's Persian satellite channel for news on the day of the election, and for the weeks following. The pixelated compression of parts of the image and sound, which like most software glitches amounted to the deletion of key frames and the algorithmic editing together of two obviously unrelated frames, modified whole broadcasts along the entire footprint of the satellite. Satellite technicians traced the interference immediately. It was clear that the BBC signal was being jammed from Iran. Faces and moving hands were pixelated, and jump cuts stalled the tilting of heads and the movement of bodies and lips on screen. Voices dragged deep and cracked as background footage turned to static and washed out in color. These glitches, which fiercely blocked access to the news, produced an unpredictable change in the ways people connected across the boundaries of states, and affected the transmission of information between large networks of people online and off. This transformation in the media environment affected the ecology of global life.

The fact that the Iranian state media was lying about the protests, combined with the glitchy screens that faced viewers when they turned to the news, required of those witnessing the uprising in Iran to provide the world with evidence. In the digital videos that citizens uploaded, masses of people appeared in green ribbons, bound neatly around their wrists and their fingers; digital devices held aloft, they captured the moments of the uprising for others, as their collective eyes and ears. Bodies and devices moved effortlessly amid fluid crowds. In images that went viral within minutes of being posted, protestors were framed sitting cross-legged and bravely in front of the shields of the riot police and the state's security forces. They were sitting in protest with faces covered; in dark sunglasses; in the heat of the summer. They appeared on rooftops and moved in waves that washed entire boulevards in bodies of green and black, where a single sheet of hand-printed paper asked: "Where is my Vote?"

On June 18, 2009, six days into the crisis, @persiankiwi tweeted at the state media:

IRIB.ir - How is it possible that 2Million people march in your country and you say NOTHING? #iranelection 3:48 AM - 18 Jun 2009

The alarm over the lies that were being broadcast by the state media about the election, about the protests and the violence of the security forces, began to overshadow concern about the election results, on the streets and online too. On June 23, 2009, Homa Maddah a twenty-sixyear-old protestor wrote in a Tehran Avenue blog, "the state radio and television is no longer the place where worthless sitcoms and mini-series, unimportant news items and sports news are broadcast, it is that 'demi-monster' that comes out of hiding every night and through lies and fiction tries to scare us."

Six years earlier in 2003 when demonstrations against the privatization of Iran's universities broke out at the University of Tehran, Iranian state television and radio had shown itself similarly unwilling to report on the developments. At best, it was a source of misinformation. As one eyewitness notes, it was the Iranian satellite channels broadcasting from Los Angeles that showed the images from the protests at the university in Tehran: "On the foreign channels — people sent video from here [Tehran] and through the Internet. There was also video footage online, of the beatings, the raids, they showed the protests — they showed video footage of the protests and were broadcasting it. Here on the [domestic] news they didn't show the protests at all. Like, two or three days later they just said that at night, a bunch of hooligans raided the university dorm." In contrast to Iranian state television, the Persian-language satellite channels in the diaspora tracked the 2003 protests around the clock. They continuously took calls from eyewitnesses and streamed digital videos from the protests.

Using these, they substantiated claims of state violence. This interactive method of communication and urgent mediation of breaking news, which by going abroad in order to broadcast nationally actively sought ways to bypass state media and the Iranian cyber army's regular filtering and hacking of blogs and opposition websites, was to become the blueprint for the global engagement of social media in the 2009 Iranian postelection crisis.

In 2009, the figure of the citizen journalist emerged globally in the first weeks of the Iranian uprising from within the glitches on the screens of international satellite broadcasts and the outraged cries of #CNNfail on Twitter. The citizen journalist was a configuration, part flesh, part data. Connected to the protesting crowds on the ground and her followers and friends online, her slogan was a hashtag: a resounding #iranelection. The efficiency of her delivery to her networks online was contrasted to mainstream media and thematized on all platforms, from the tweet to the iReport, on international blogs and on city streets everywhere.

Allegorizing the birth of the cyborgian citizen journalist, an actual television box appeared on the streets of Tehran balanced overhead in a march towards IRIB, the state radio and television headquarters. Printed on each of its sides was this slogan: "Lying Media!"


To begin this book with the hashtag is to begin with an object that was itself revolutionized in the first months of the 2009 Iranian postelection uprising. The hashtag was from its origins a keyword, a form of tagging that would give meta-information about content and provide a system of classification for materials online and for internet relay chats (IRC). Within networks it was used to label groups and topics. First introduced into the microblogging environment Twitter in 2007 by Chris Messina as a way to create groups, the hashtag became an aggregator, a way to search a topic, and by bringing focus and attention to posted content, a way to measure the range and popularity of a topic on the social media platform. It was one effort, among many, to master the overwhelming transmissions of the digital age.

#iranelection emerged on Twitter as the markup for the most retweeted posts on current events in Iran. Thus during the first weeks of the crisis, the hashtag went from being a localized practice among smaller groups on Twitter to becoming an international practice in writing posts more generally. Four days after the election, Mashable reported that subscribers on Twitter had produced 221,744 tweets per hour about Iran on June 16, with over 22,500 tweets per hour dedicated to the hashtag #iranelection alone. #iranelection was the first long-trending international hashtag in Twitter's history. Recognizing its utility, Twitter placed current trending hashtags next to users' streams in the early days of #iranelection. Then, in the early months of 2010, the platform made a decision to hyperlink hashtags within tweets and introduced trending topics to its front page.

Precisely because access to social media is now ubiquitous, the implications of the uses of social media are often assumed today without further reflection. Social media platforms' current forms and functions are thus retrospectively projected back onto earlier incarnations and functions. We forget that it was in these very moments of crisis that the hashtag (#iranelection) as a networked aggregator of texts, images, videos, audio recordings, and URL links effectively forged a communal sensorium, that is, eyes and ears that were shared by protestors on the ground and netizens online, simultaneously transmitting, indeed creating and living a shared international experience. In the most critical moments of the historical uprising, bodies and social media handles effectively became memes, viral transmitters of packages of content, of sensory experiences, and of actions that in their simultaneous expression around a long-trending hashtag fundamentally impacted the function and purpose of media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, and YouTube. The solidarity that took shape around the first-ever international hashtag, #iranelection, situated the continuity between the corporal senses and a communal one that was shared by a multitude on the social media platform. The hashtag itself produced a collective sensorial solidarity online in an age where contemporary political and economic ecologies under the aegis of governmental and corporate neoliberal policies seemingly move towards eliminating the possibilities of assembly for groups, unions, cooperatives, and collectives on the ground everywhere. This international solidarity, an overpowering sense of affinity and kinship, among netizens and protestors on the ground, was what shaped the forms and functions of social media platforms as we recognize them today.

What becomes clear then as we focus attention on the function of the hashtag is the ways it emerges out of an urform, an ancient incarnation, which is that of the slogan. During the Iranian election crisis, posts often ended with "#iranelection RT RT RT." True, the hashtag #iranelection was an aggregator of the thousands of posts that were tweeted on the topic per second, but in the call to RT RT RT (retweet, retweet, retweet) that appeared in virtually every early post on Twitter, the hashtag itself crystallized into a slogan: an urform resurrected, reanimated, and redeemed just as the slogans of the "Sea of Green" were being quelled on the street and forced onto rooftops and balconies in the darkness of the night.

It was not altogether surprising, then, that hashtags in tweets would be hyperlinked during this rather brief period in the history of online life, allowing users on Twitter to connect one poster's tweet with another's. The hashtag became the sign and symbol of a collective demand. #iranelection as both an aggregator of a long-trending topic and the repeated slogan of netizens would come to be the marker of a global solidarity and the uprising of one people united against injustice.


Excerpted from #iranelection by Negar Mottahedeh. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

@negaratduke #iranelection RT 1

I Hashtag: #CNNfail & the slogans of the 2009 Iranian election crisis 9

The Urform 16

"Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic" 18

#8Mordad 21

"Down with the shah!" 24

II Meme: You Tube & the telephone call to the beyond 33

Plug In 38

Google YouTube 40

$$$ 43

Country: Worldwide 47

Advanced Settings 50

"Allah-o-Akbar" 54

The Unform 60

III Selfie: Solidarity & everyday life 65

Select & Crop 68

Filter 69

Write Caption 72

#16Azar 73

#IamMajid 77

#selfie 81

The Urform 83

#tbt 86

#hairdone 93

#instalove 97

#solidarity 99

Acknowledgment 105

Notes 111

Further Reading 135

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#iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If I could, I would rate this book -100. After all, I'm not even surprised! Iran KILLS people for NOT DOING ANYTHING TO THEM and HAVING FREE WILL. I mean, seriously? How would you like it if people killed YOU for NO REASON AT ALL? I am just trying to get my message around. Spread this. Write if you agree with me, not if you DON'T agree with me. Thank you.