The 2010 Arab Spring revolutions were met with global euphoria. It was expected that regime change would lead to better outcomes for citizens. The unprecedented and rapid mobilisation of young people, it seemed, was a good sign for the future of global democracy. Meanwhile, Western powers could quietly wash their hands of dictators whom they had propped up for decades in clear violation of their own democratic principles.
But the response to Iran’s latest protests was relatively muted. Most EU nations had called for negotiations with protesters even as the Iranian government began brutal crackdowns. There was scarcely a whiff of the optimism that characterised the world’s first encounter with mass social media-driven protests.
So what got Iran’s citizens on its streets for the first time in decades? In the years since the Arab Spring, have governments finally learned how to deal with radically networked societies?
Social media, by definition, aims to connect people. Being social animals, humans are quite susceptible to social signalling, which social media is great for. If people receive positive signals about buying Apple products, they will tend to do that. But to get people on the streets, people need more signals than cool advertisements.
A team of researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute arrived at a few fundamental signals that get people to participate in political action. Note that these are signals. The objective realities of the issue are not as important as the image that media can convey.First: they must believe that they will benefit from the success of the action. Second: they must believe that the action is likely to succeed. Third: they must believe that the action will be more likely to succeed if they participate in it.
Iran is struggling with massive unemployment and inflation. The 2015 nuclear deal with the US failed to generate jobs. However, an expensive and highly expansionary foreign policy is followed. Inequality and religious orthodoxy is a growing concern. Funds are still flowing to pro-regime religious establishments. All this has happened over a period of rapid expansion in smartphone usage. Mobile phone penetration now stands at 41 per cent, as compared to 2 per cent during Iran’s last major wave of protests in 2009. The country is also overwhelmingly young, with a median age of 27. It is possible that young people who use smartphones and social media the most, were convinced that their situation couldn’t get any worse.
A relatively small protest on December 28 last year against President Hassan Rouhani over economic grievances was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. This protest could have ignited social media groups to do something, by signalling that their actions could shift the balance and succeed in ushering in positive change.
As more people participated in protests, they spread ever-more positive signals through social media, creating cyber-cascades of increasing mobilisation—from one phone to the next, from one group to the next, from one city to the next. The more protesters, the more likely the movement would seem (to them) to succeed.
There are multiple points during the process where states can and will crack down. Mobilisation requires signals. To stop mobilisation, signals must be severed. Telegram and Instagram, Iran’s two major social media platforms, were blocked (Facebook has already been banned for years). This drastically reduced the protesters’ capacity for mobilisation. In the short to medium term, this reduced the size of protests. And this week, President Rouhani reportedly instructed his communications minister to increase support for domestic apps. The president’s order follows calls by hardliners to ‘secure cyberspace’.
What about people who were already on the street? The leaderless, incohesive nature of social media mobilisation is great for getting people on the streets quickly. However, it makes it tough for the state to respond. If the protests are too large, then individual mobilisers can’t be targeted—force must be used to crack down widely.
This is where authoritarian regimes have an edge over liberal democracies. The Iranian government had arrested hundreds and at least 20 people were reported to be dead. The Revolutionary Guards were deployed. Such crackdowns act as a further disincentive for people to get on the streets. Of course, crackdowns might go the other way. In Egypt during the Arab Spring, the military refused to fire on protesters, allowing for a further surge of patriotic mobilisation.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the protests somehow grew massive enough to force out the ruling government. Will it make any difference? Not really.To paraphrase the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, social media mobilisations cannot succeed because they rarely have a clear strategy in mind. They mobilise around issues, not solutions. They do not have the leadership structure necessary to work with existing institutions to get things done—unless institutions themselves change (as in Tunisia).
In the atmosphere of jubilation and confusion that follows a successful leadership revolt, existing vested interests are likely to reassert themselves, as the Muslim Brotherhood, and later, the Army did in post-Mubarak Egypt.
The destabilising potential of social media, in terms of mobilisation, is well-documented. India would do well to learn from what happens in Iran. As job growth slows and the country’s population grows, it is likely that we too are headed for youth-led dissatisfaction and political turbulence in the near future. Only time will tell if our democratic institutions will stand up to the test.
Researcher at Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore-based public policy think-tank