Hashtag solidarity and the radical kinship of Twitter’s #iranelection
Anthony Bourdain fans remember Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian from Bourdain’s Iran show. Rezaian was the Iranian-American journalist who appeared in a café scene set in a mountain park in Darband in Northern Tehran along with his wife. Rezaian was arrested just before the Bourdain show aired and has been held incommunicado at Tehran’s Evin prison since his detention in July 2014. Rezaian appeared in trial on Monday (June 8), but little information has been released about the proceedings.
Today, on the 6 year anniversary of #iranelection, the news of Rezaian’s trial has reminded me of who we were to each other when Twitter was fresh and still not quite tainted by the self-promotion and commercialism that now haunts its early integrity.
In the summer of 2009, the solidarity around the hashtag #iranelection had hundreds of thousands of Twitter subscribers (tweeps) everywhere greening their avatars and changing their geolocation to Tehran to protect those who were actually tweeting from the ground in Iran. That hashtag solidarity was unprecedented.
Hashtags were rarely used except on Twitter back then. Actually, hashtags weren’t even hyperlinked until that historical moment. Hyperlinked hashtags came about just as tweeps were using hashtags #iranelection #GR88 and #SoG to support Iranians in the days of protest following the fraudulent Presidential election of 2009. Tweeps used these hashtags to stand in solidarity with the arrested bloggers and journalists, that like Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, were merely reporting on the early marches of the Sea of Green in Iran. The hyperlinked hashtag came to stand for a massive global solidarity and made it feel as if we were all marching together, linked, as one people, against injustice.
Back then, the Global Freedom Movement, the entity that was behind the hologram protests in Madrid this last April, set up a virtual protest site near Evin prison, where Rezaian is being held today. Protestors used this site to gather en masse and stand with the Mourning Mothers for Peace and the friends and families of political prisoners detained in Iran. The site is still active, but few are showing up there in solidarity anymore.
Today on the six year anniversary of #iranelection, I think about the lessons of that global solidarity in 2009. I think we all registered that something profound was happening then. It seemed clear somehow that the stakes of the people’s civil liberties in Iran were as much our stakes as they were theirs. After all, much of what we learned after Snowden about the egregious violations of our own privacy in so-called “Western democracies,” were revealed during the Nokia-Siemens deep packet inspection scandal in Iran. We knew that the injustices we were witnessing were not particular to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Mind you, I’m not saying that we weren’t with the protestors in Iran. We stood for them and did everything we could to support them. We joined Austin Heap and Neda.net in setting up proxies that would allow the Iranian opposition to mobilize online. We crafted beautiful songs and videos honoring Neda. We went “Iranian on authority figures” in every way. And had we been paying attention, we would have pinpointed that nagging feeling that what was wrong Iran, was also very wrong here: the US government’s own abuses of the Patriot act’s Section 125 were clear in view even as the US President spoke with concern about Iranian voices being heard and their votes counted.
From The Wall Street Journal June 22, 2009 : “Countries with repressive governments aren’t the only ones interested in such [deep packet inspection] technology. Britain has a list of blocked sites, and the German government is considering similar measures. In the U.S., the National Security Agency has such capability, which was employed as part of the Bush administration’s “Terrorist Surveillance Program.” A White House official wouldn’t comment on if or how this is being used under the Obama administration.”
The stakes of #iranelection were all of ours. And on some level, we knew it then. That’s why hundreds of thousands us came together around the globe in an unprecedented gesture of hashtag solidarity for no less than eight months in 2009, making #iranelection the longest trending topic in Twitter’s global history.
That solidarity was critical. It forced the Iranian authorities to release Bahari (although many journalists and protestors still remain in prison). But critical too, was the change in our engagement with social media, a change brought about by that global solidarity. Flickr, Yfrog, Twitpic and YouTube became the extension of our acts of witnessing, of our being “black boxes” for one another in those days. They became the sites we used to record and circulate the violations of the state against its own people. We realized already back in 2009, that as Jay Smooth said in the aftermath of the #WalterScott murder: “In that worst case scenario, the only Black Box available — Is Us.” That recognition, that solidarity reshaped the whole ecology of online life forever. Twitter changed. Facebook changed. Google changed. Even CNN changed. In fact, mainstream media took on a whole different character.
So on the anniversary of #iranelection, I wonder:
What if the stakes of liberty and freedom for imprisoned journalists and protestors in Iran, are still our stakes?
What if the gagged necessity to make protests virtual and holgrammed in Spain, only foreshadows an outraged future that is also ours everywhere?
What if this wall of shame of imprisoned journalists in Iran, is our wall of shame as well? A reminder that as “black boxes” of state violence and police brutality, we are all vulnerable.
What if our only hope —and the only hope for the integrity of the ecology of life online, of life, period — is our passionate sense of radical kinship and an unwavering commitment to an encompassing human solidarity?