#iranelection: An Interview with Negar Mottahedeh on Protest, Play, and the 2009 Green Movement

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ON JUNE 20, 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan, a philosophy student in Tehran, was shot while witnessing the growing protests in the country. She gripped her chest while two young men eased her to the ground. “Neda dear don’t be afraid,” someone said. “Neda don’t be afraid. Neda, stay, Neda stay, Neda don’t go.” Just a day prior, YouTube had allowed streaming video of the shooting; by the time the video reached CNN and other broadcast networks, it riveted the world. Neda’s death, broadcast first on social media, became a catalyzing moment of global attention to the events in Iran.

The role of the internet in raising awareness of Agha-Soltan’s death is one of many moments vividly described in Negar Mottahedeh’s #iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life. The book looks at the tumultuous period following the 2009 Iranian Presidential election and the emergence of the Green Movement, in which protesters demanded the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose reelection they believed to be rigged (“Where is my vote?” became one of the key online/offline battle cries of the protests).

Mottahedeh’s detailed accounting of the digital expression of the events, including hashtags, selfies, and memes, makes a compelling case for why this became a critical moment in history for both Iran and the internet:

Images of the spectacular crowds in green [referencing the Green Movement] and the viral video of the murdered Neda Agha-Soltan galvanized people of all backgrounds and ages. On Twitter these images linked to and circulated with the hashtags #SeaofGreen, #SoG, #GR88, #Neda, #FreeIran, and #iranelection. Facebook friends created photosets, and personal Flickr accounts were used to archive images that were being posted by way of TwitPic and yfrog onto Twitter’s early textual platform — images of the wounded, of women creating barricades, of protesters being assaulted on a street corner, of men carrying rocks, of rows of riot police lining the street, of protective fires large and small, of the basij (the state militia) holding cameras and handheld weapons on motorcycles approaching a scattering crowd, of circulating currency stamped in green ink […].


Around the world thousands of “tweeps” — a portmanteau of “Twitter peeps,” as the intimate group of early adopters called one another — placed a green overlay on their avatars and changed their time and geolocation to Tehran to stand as alibis in solidarity with those actually tweeting from Iran. They rapidly worked to locate safe houses on Google Maps as news emerged that wounded protestors were being arrested immediately upon their arrival at hospitals […].


Posted as status updates and tweets, some of the latest slogans were accompanied with commentaries and translations, others, with peals of laughter. A simple printed sheet of paper: “Look how loud are howls of silence.” Graffiti on a city wall: “Down with the dictator.” And recalling the first wave of arrests at Tehran University, the day after the presidential election: “Evin prison: Now admitting students.”


By now, in the age of #BlackLivesMatter in the United States, #UmbrellaMovement in Hong Kong, and #OccupyGezi in Turkey, we’ve come to expect a hashtag and a series of memes for every protest. But the Green Movement in Iran was the first social movement to be witnessed online at a global scale, predating both Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring by two years. Given the closed broadcast media environment in Iran, the world turned to social media — especially Twitter and Facebook — to make sense of what was happening on the ground, while protestors around the world found community and solidarity online. As Mottahedeh noted, “The hashtag #iranelection remained the highest-ranking global hashtag on Twitter for two weeks following the presidential election,” bested only briefly by news of Michael Jackson’s death.

So much has been said about the journalistic and organizing value of the internet in contemporary social movements, and Mottahedeh, a professor in the Program in Literature at Duke University, explores something arguably as important: how the internet has made movements personal, intimate, and even playful (one anecdote points at a mash-up of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” with a video collage of the protests). Her focus on memetic creative expression through various media platforms online and off adds texture to the profound possibilities — and substantial risks — of personal expression during movements.

Just as critically, she highlights the intersection of the digital and physical so we can understand the events on social media platforms. Speaking to activists’ strategies to evade the state-controlled media environment, she describes how the phrase “Resaneh Shoma Hasteed” (“You are the media”) took form on various media as a way to encourage spreading news and information about a flash mob protest in a bazaar. It was one of many phrases that spread through the hands, thumbs, and voices of participants in a decentralized way:

From Facebook walls to graffitied city walls, from billboards to circulating one-thousand rial bills and city buses, the understanding was clear: “You are the media.” To each individual was left the responsibility to counter the state’s stranglehold on broadcasting. Social media may have been the site for the transmission of content, for the circulation of event announcements, articles, and commentary, but in the course of the uprising social media’s amorphous networks of mimetic transmissions became the very blueprint for people’s behavior, for their actions, and for their patterns of movement. Whether online or off, #iranelection transmitted packages of content with ease. Its network was alive. It was animated by living, breathing memes, each carrying units of cultural ideas and practice.


The long-term effects of the internet are yet to be understood, but in the wake of the recent 2016 elections in Iran, researcher Narges Bajoghli argued that it has enabled those pushed into exile in 2009 to still participate in and influence voter turnout. While the subject of those memes is quite different, they remain political; it’s helpful to understand the historical context from which they arise.

I sat down with Mottahedeh over Skype to talk about her book, some of the ideas behind it, and what we might learn from it with regards to movements today.

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AN XIAO MINA: #iranelection was published late last year in 2015. It looks at events from 2009, or six years prior. In internet terms, that feels like another lifetime. For some perspective, the iPhone had yet to install a front-facing camera, Facebook had just overtaken MySpace in terms of user numbers, and Twitter was still primarily associated with lunch photos and techies. How did you get into this topic, and why do you think it feels timely today?

NEGAR MOTTAHEDEH: I’d been giving talks within days of the crisis. I think that the first people to contact me were from a church in Durham, North Carolina. They were interested in knowing what was going on in Iran and what role social media was playing in the election crisis. Like everybody else, watching a movement evolve on social media was new to me. So that’s really how I started working on the topic and started assembling material about the movement online on a regular basis.

I had been on Twitter for almost a year at that point. I had started thinking about how one could make social media the center for teaching and learning. For me, Twitter meant that I could find my peers, not only in my neighborhood and the university where I taught, but all around the world. I had started thinking about how this would be equally useful for my students. What if they could find peers with similar interests elsewhere too?

What I did was to open the classroom with Web 2.0 technologies and have my students share what they were learning with their peers online. One of the first things we did on social media was to create the first ever Twitter film festival. It was really fabulous.

A Twitter film festival? Tell me more!

It was the final project for my Introduction to Film class. We put on a film festival where students would upload clips from films that we had studied in class or that they had written about in their final papers. Online, they’d relate the clips to class readings and write brief commentaries on the clips during the course of the three-day film festival.

Throughout the semester, they would be tweeting out of the classroom and engaging with people about what they were learning. All these things seem old fashioned now, but at the time it hadn’t happened before. My colleagues elsewhere were up in arms about it. It was just such a weird phenomenon to everyone. We were in the newspapers all the time. This was in 2008.

What’s so interesting about this festival is that you were combining video, an in-person gathering, and social media. This was before 2009, and then #iranelection happened. It must have felt like a parallel experience, on this larger, more international scale: tweets, videos, and in-person gatherings.

As the election results were coming in, I was looking at a friend’s Facebook page. She wrote an update about how worried she was about the elections, that there seemed something very wrong going on. Because Twitter had been a source of information for me on Iran, I just thought I would see if any of the people I was following were seeing something similar.

What I found was that there were already rumblings on the day of the election. The polls hadn’t closed, and the government was already announcing the election results. Within a day of the election, the hashtags #iranelection and #freeiran started to dominate my feed. I turned to Twitter initially to see what the news was from the ground, then I realized that it was more than just news. People were being witnesses. The were bearing witness in their Tweets, in their videos, in the pictures they were uploading to platforms like Flickr and TwitPic.

I think this is an important distinction — “being witnesses” and “bearing witness.” So much of the conversation about social media and social movements focuses on the journalistic aspect of this, which is no doubt critical. But there are other ways that social media can be used and has been used.

What I saw within a few days of the election crisis was that social media platforms were being used differently than they had been before. They were being used to protect the people on the ground. If someone had posted a picture, it would go viral. People recognized that the virality of that image would protect the person in it. Because millions of people saw the image, virality felt very much like this ability to create security in a context where security was obviously missing. People were afraid. People were afraid of being shot. So many of the images that were being posted and the memes that were created were about liberation. They were also about how the mouse and the computer were being used to scare off a bogeyman of a government and to stave off violence. It was a hopeful moment for social media.

Looking back, from 2009 to 2016, what do you see has changed?

Within days of the election, so many of the platforms took on a different role. Facebook incorporated the Persian language to enable communication; Google installed a beta version of its Persian translation to overcome the language barrier. On Twitter, hashtags became hyperlinked so that one could see the connection between one tweet and the next by clicking on it. In 2009, the hashtag went from a tool for creating groups to actually creating solidarity around a movement. #iranelection became the slogan of the net’s first inhabitants.

What I noticed in 2009 was this realization that we were each other’s eyes and ears. There was this sense of immediacy and connectivity: they posted, and we saw it. They heard, and we heard it. They felt, and we felt it too. Within minutes, we would be watching the video of what was happening thousands of miles away.

What occurred in those few months created the potential of something like Periscope where you can see the world through someone else’s eyes. A lot of the ways that we now use social media, including Snapchat and Periscope, has to do with what we learned together in those moments of crisis and collectivity.

What’s remarkable was reading about this early use of the “I am” meme at a global scale online, with #IAmNeda. That practice has since been used with #IAmTrayvon and #JeSuisCharlie, among others.

In the evocation of “I am,” there’s a sense of intimacy — Je Suis Charlie; I am Neda — that becomes part of solidarity and activism. #iranelection created a personal connection to something that was distant. There were hundreds of music videos honoring the courageous Iranians that demanded their vote back. They were created by people who didn’t know anything about Iran or Neda before they saw her gunned down in a digital video.

There was something about the immediate ability to access the revolt that created a sense of urgency and intimacy. That intimacy was represented by the hashtag #IAmNeda and by the songs and the art that Neda’s death also generated. For those who participated, this was a crucial moment of transformation in their lives and in the ways that they engaged with media. We take that intimacy and immediacy for granted now. And social media has become much more corporate too.

Also expressed in these online “I am” actions is this practice of the selfie. Front-facing cameras were few and far between and had yet to be introduced to the iPhone, but already self-portraits played an important role in the online component of the protests. In addition to #IAmNeda, you looked at #IAmMajid, a series of selfies posted in solidarity with Majid Tavakoli, a young man arrested during the protests. Official news agencies had published a photo of him wearing a full-length black chador over a blue hijab and said he was trying to escape wearing women’s clothing. To challenge this, men posted selfies while wearing the veil, in solidarity with both Tavakoli and, more broadly, Iranian women compelled to wear the headscarves everyday in public.

I have this conversation with my students every semester about selfies. We talk about how selfies are symbolic of a narcissistic, millennial culture. That’s become the most obvious thing to say about selfies.

I think it’s completely otherwise. I certainly think that the front-facing camera allows for a whole other level of engagement with portraiture on Snapchat and Instagram. It captures the everyday and memorializes it as part of history. What the selfie says is, “I’m here,” or, “I was here doing something.” It makes everyday life an important part of history.

Histories were previously written about those in power, and portraits were made of those in leadership. Now, portraits become phenomena that have to do with the ordinary life of the individual. They render the ordinary and the individual important.

All the front-runners in the US political campaign are using the selfie as a way to humanize themselves and make themselves one of the people. In our time, the selfie is probably the most intimate human form that we have. It humanizes everything grand and extraordinary. In the book I argue that we need to understand the selfie in terms of its ur-form: “the people.”

The selfie is actually linked to our physicality. There is a part of our body that touches the technology that captures parts of ourselves in the image. The selfie in that sense is part flesh and part data in the very moment of “the capture,” and because it is meant to be shared, it is networked in the very moment of its making.

We don’t think about it, because we want to insist that it is just a photograph. But it’s not just a photograph. It is a networked object.

A lot has changed since 2009. There were a number of arrests after the protests, and many activists were pushed into exile. One story that stays with me is the one you share of Neda Soltani, a former professor English at Azad University in Tehran. After the viral death of Neda Agha-Soltan, journalists found Soltani on Facebook and thought she was the same Neda. They posted photos of Soltani, thus triggering a series of events that included an interrogation by Iranian Ministry of Intelligence agents, who claimed she faked her death. Soltani eventually had to flee the country to seek asylum in Germany.

So in many ways, the internet can be a dangerous place for activists and people associated with them — intentionally or not. It seems like there are a lot of challenges that need to be navigated as movements move forward, and that the initial wave of optimism we had about the internet’s ability to shape movements needs to be tempered.

I think the millennial generation has recognized that. The moment of #iranelection and the 2009 Iranian election crisis has passed. I don’t think what happened then can happen now on social media. Not in the same way.

This is partly because Twitter and Facebook and Instagram have become sites for corporate promotion and also surveillance by governments and other agencies. A lot of the millennials are tired of being trolled by business. They’re tired of being under surveillance everywhere.

They have removed themselves from these sites to other sites. To Snapchat for example. They use Facebook groups and Facebook events and Facebook messenger but they rarely post publicly on Facebook. They want to get away from surveillance and advertising.

Also, the algorithms on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have made it impossible for us to make what we want to say immediately visible to our friends and followers. These platforms decide for us what might be more important via algorithms. So baby photos come up as more important than acts of dissent.

The gesture of putting an overlay or filter on your avatar as a way to stand in solidarity was one of the innovations of #iranelection. Now it’s become something that has an expiration date built into it on Facebook. You can put on your activist overlay and Facebook will take it off for you in a week or two weeks. Many gestures of solidarity have become automated and have become functions of algorithms. For that reason alone, I see them as completely useless in stating our active solidarity.

I don’t want to say that these transformations of the platform are all bad. What clearly happened with the overlay during the Paris attacks was that Facebook recognized how people engaged with these moments of crisis. It was essentially users’ or subscribers’ engagement with the medium that affected a change in the medium. And that is a wonderful thing.

My book is really about that. It’s less about how effective Twitter and Facebook were in liberating Iran or even how well they did in bringing Iranians together or spreading information. I am less convinced that social media did any of that.

What I am convinced of is that the solidarity created on social media was global. That solidarity changed social media platforms forever. That to me is the biggest consequence of #iranelection. That international solidarity, that global sense of intimacy was powerful enough to transform the ecology of online life.

And perhaps there’s a way that we can think of that intimacy and creativity as being powerful, even while recognizing that the sort of change many were hoping for in 2009 might take longer to come to fruition.

What I saw in Iran during the post-election crisis was a lot of play. I think that there is a correlation between play and revolutionary action. When you see a child at play, they are recreating the world, mimicking what is, leaving their mark on it, changing it in the process. Play creates the world anew. Many of the revolts were flash mobs that creatively circumvented the government’s restriction. They did it playfully and oftentimes joyfully. People were revolting against what was and, in the revolt, created something new.

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In 2009, An Xiao Mina was trying to figure out this social media thing. 22,000 Tweets later, she's still not sure.