News Analysis: Twitter Can't Protect Iranian Protestors

By Benjamin L. Hartman (Haaretz)

Published June 23, 2009.

Outside of Iran, it’s easy being green these days. The streets of major cities worldwide host swirling masses of light-emerald protestors on a semi-daily basis, the throngs blending into a peaceful mix of nationalities hoisting V signs to the sky.

It’s hard to remember an international protest movement that received such international coverage, or that awakened such great passions in third-party observers, most of them quite detached from the Middle East or Iran.

You’d almost have to go back to Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Hungary in 1956 when “Hungarian freedom fighters” were named TIME Man of the Year to see a revolt against authoritarianism receive press on this level.

It’s hard to understand why the “Green Revolution” (or, nauseatingly, “the Twitter Revolution”) has sparked such an outpouring of sympathy from the world or why it has become the rare “actual news event” able to unseat North Korea saber-rattling and Sarah Palin-David Letterman feud stories from the news cycle.

The immediacy of it all, in combination with Ahmadinejad’s years of diligent work to make himself a celebrity political villain, has made this issue seem much closer to home for millions. Yet the official and unofficial death tolls are at levels that are by no means shocking or beyond the norm when undemocratic regimes dispatch men in black to clear the streets.

Social networking sites have made this revolution different, but they don’t insure that the end result for the protestors will be any less bloody, or that an authoritarian regime will somehow be forced to make concessions. The tired “the world is watching” refrain has been heard for decades, and only in a handful of instances has it slowed the hand of tyranny. Further, the repeated refrains that it will cost the Islamic Republic “legitimacy” in the eyes of their people and the international community seem a bit empty, almost implying that the mullah state was legitimate to begin with.

One could argue the ideology of the Islamic revolution has for decades been steadily losing legitimacy with its own people and has rarely cared what the outside world says about its image or legitimacy. When you host an international Holocaust denial conference or dispatch your president to bait Jews and bash Israel at a UN anti-racism conference, you’ve made it clear how you feel about the international community. In fact, one could assume that any country with a “supreme leader” whose power is handed down by God probably has a regime that doesn’t care about the beating they’ll take on Facebook forums.

It’s true that in this day and age we are all correspondents; we are all equipped 24 hours a day with a camera, a cell phone, and the ability to transmit messages globally within an instant. This technology makes us feel connected to breaking news stories on a personal level. It inspires our despair and outrage, and on some level, makes many of us feel that by telling the story, we will help ensure a happy ending.

But when the bullets and the truncheons really begin to fly in Tehran, an iPhone or a Twitter account won’t make you bulletproof. Facebook won’t evacuate you from the rooftops, and an emboldened authoritarian regime will have a direct digital trail to hunt you down when the purges begin. To misquote Stalin, how many battalions do the reformists and their online compatriots have?

In a country like Iran, with its massive state security service, work stoppages and peaceful protests in the streets face a ruthlessly stacked deck. Chances are, if the protests continue without any sort of breakthrough or without mass defections among the state security services, the stage will be set for the real crackdown, the one that won’t be televised at all and will make the violence up until now look like child’s play.

If that happens, we will all see - once reporters are allowed back in - an emboldened authoritarian state which has proven to itself and the world that it can protect the revolution by force, and no level of international condemnation or peaceful protest can stay its hand. The despair among the Iranian people will worsen immeasurably and Tehran’s Hezbollah and Hamas proxies on Israel’s northern and southern border will have the renewed support of a rogue state that has purged its dissenters, jailed its reformists and shown the entire world the true face of the Islamic Republic.

Pray for the Iranian people, because it will take much more than a handful of martyrs and an endless stream of online flotsam to set them free.



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