How the Green Movement mobilized social media in the interest of social change.
A sense of euphoria and unprecedented freedom dominated national politics during the presidential campaigns in Iran in the spring of 2009. In the course of the thirty-year history of the theocratic state, no one could remember another time when Iranian state television had broadcast such lively debates among the presidential candidates.
Six years ago today Iranians went to the polls to elect a new president. Millions believe that their votes were never counted.
After leaving a rally for the then-sitting president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Time magazine correspondent Joe Klein described a crowd of tens of thousands: “They began to filter in to downtown,” he recalled. The Ahmadinejad rally was ending around the same time that the reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s rally was also finishing up. Mousavi’s supporters made their way downtown, flooding the streets and squares. The scene, as Klein recalled it with obvious awe, was one of camaraderie, of playfulness. Describing the intermingling of the two camps, Klein observed, “they were just kind of joking with each other. It seemed as if someone had opened a magic door and an entire country had spilled out.”
This wasn’t just a feeling. Things looked lively too. Color was everywhere. Campaign paraphernalia, campaign headquarters, and campaigners themselves were clearly differentiated using predesigned graphic coding based on the colors of their chosen candidate’s campaign.
While the incumbent president’s supporters used the Iranian flag as their chief symbol, Mousavi’s campaigners rallied around the color green. It was during one of the presidential debates that the reformist Mousavi had put on a green shawl. The tint of the shawl, an iridescent green, the color assigned to the family of the Prophet, highlighted Mousavi’s status as a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and emphasized his position as the candidate who promised to bring the nation back to the basics, that is, to the original principles of the state as established after the 1978 Revolution by the venerated leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Six years ago today Iranians went to the polls to elect a new president. Before the polls were even closed, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced as the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran with 63% of the votes cast. Millions believe that their votes were never counted. Thus, a month after Mousavi’s appearance on state television, that is, on the days following the election, an all-embracing movement donning green armbands, finger-bands, and headbands took to the streets to call Ahmadinejad’s victory a fraud. The color green became the symbol of the opposition. The date—June 12, 2009—became the official genesis of Iran’s Green Movement.
Images of masses of people filling the vast boulevards, squares, and bridges of the Iranian cityscape were posted to Twitter and Facebook within minutes. Digital images framed groups of men and women donned in green and black, in headgear or scarves, with one simple question printed by hand on a single sheet of paper: “Where is my Vote?”
Hundreds of such images circulated from within the crowds. Protestors were alternately holding hands and flashing victory signs. Close-ups of men and women, people of different generations and backgrounds, next to each other, marching behind one another: the urgency with which the images were uploaded, shared, studied, commented on, and retweeted established a sense of simultaneity and solidarity. As supporters posted pictures from the protests and put green overlays on their avatar images to express solidarity, Twitter became awash with the color green. The opposition movement was lovingly embraced online as the “Sea of Green,” the “Green Movement,” or the “Green Wave.”
With more than ten thousand #iranelection tweets an hour throughout the month of June, the involvement of netizens in the crisis in Iran was so widespread that the hashtag #iranelection remained the highest-ranking global hashtag on Twitter for two weeks following the presidential election, dropping only momentarily after the unexpected death of Michael Jackson. But the hashtag #iranelection surged again and trended on the thirtieth anniversary of the hostage crisis, on November 4, 2009, and on the thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic Republic, on February 11, 2010, as protests continued on the ground.
On June 20, 2009, a week after the election, a twenty-six-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was brutally shot and murdered by the state paramilitary basij in Tehran. She was not the first civilian casualty of the 2009 uprising—in fact hospital sources confirmed that by June 22, thousands had been injured and forty-seven killed by government forces in Tehran alone. But Neda’s death stood out. It had all the imprints of martyrdom.
Her death in the midst of a small group of protestors and friends was captured on a handheld device and immediately uploaded. The digital video documenting Neda’s death circulated first on Facebook, then on Twitter. She was described in lengthy comments that accompanied the video as an innocent bystander who curiously led her music teacher into a crowd of peaceful protestors. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the video online and reposted it. The video of a young Iranian woman’s agonizing death went viral in a matter of hours. Her name, “Neda” (“voice” or “calling” in Persian), became the rallying cry for the Iranian opposition.Her name became a search topic and a hashtag on Twitter—#Neda. It was the highest-ranking hashtag on June 20, 2009, indicating tens of thousands of posts on the day of her death.
There was a burst of emotional connectivity, of creativity, of collaboration and exchange in response to Neda’s death. U2 dedicated its 2009 tour to the Iranian people, projecting images of the unrest alongside images from Shirin Neshat’s photographic series Women of Allah. From her kitchen, on her signature solo guitar, Joan Baez made a YouTube recording of “We Shall Overcome” in honor of #iranelection, adding Persian lyrics that declared the people’s ultimate victory. Madonna too joined “the campaign for a free Iran” by dedicating her July 4 and 5 concerts to the people’s struggle in Iran. Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Prize in the name of Neda, that “young woman who marches silently in the streets on behalf of her right to be heard even in the face of beatings and bullets.” Indeed, she was lauded as one of the top ten heroes of 2009 by Time magazine.
The video of Neda’s death spurred a plethora of other responses too. The city of Rome renamed a street in her honor. The Pirate Bay changed its color coding to green and renamed itself “The Persian Bay.” The website Neda Speaks was immediately established as a platform for creative projects and initiated what later became a popular form of activism, namely, to take a stand for human rights by posting a selfie with the words “I am Neda” written on a blank sheet of paper.
The viral images of Neda’s death were reproduced in so many thousands of formats, fora, and digital figures that any attempt to enumerate and preserve them would prove deficient. Perhaps, though, the most articulate representation of the memes generated by the video of Neda’s death was the campaign “United for Iran” in Paris on July 25, 2009, where an estimated eight thousand protestors gathered around the Eiffel Tower to unfurl a two-kilometer-long banner with signatures of support and solidarity from all over the world. Auxiliary events were held in one hundred and ten cities and six continents with over fifty thousand participants in all.
The most stunning of the images that circulated on #iranelection from the United for Iran global campaign were those from the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, where supporters all posed with masks of Neda, multiplying her image meme-like into a sea of thousands, a living, sensing networked body standing in an elsewhere, geo-tagged as Iran, where on the streets of Tehran Neda’s life had been snuffed out.
By a month into the Iranian election crisis, it was clear that the camera phone had become the eyes and ears of the globe, its recorded and collective act of witnessing. Retweeted, retooled, and repeatedly streamed, the digital camera’s critical gesture of seeing formed the scrutinizing gaze of a collective sensorium.
everybody try to film as much as poss today on mobiles - v\imptnt - these are eyes of world #Iranelection— persiankiwi (@persiankiwi) June 16, 2009
Urgent, unjust, and lengthy, the Iranian postelection crisis galvanized and transformed the ecology of life online such that the tropes of #iranelection, its aggregation of an international mass movement around a uniform global hashtag, its valuation of standing “friend/follower” networks and citizen reporting, its engagement with avatar activism, its relentless and conscientious circulation of digital images, its immediate retweeting of the most recent YouTube videos, its hacks, memes, and viral transmissions, its mass participation in flash mobs and text-the-regime campaigns, became part of a sensing, breathing, collective body, part flesh, part data, connected across the globe by way of a continual exchange of digital sights and sounds on social media.
This post was adapted from #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life by Negar Mottahedeh.