Iran, Facebook, and the Limits of Online Activism

The green movement's Internet leaders are learning the perils and pitfalls of online organizing -- the hard way.

A group of Iran's green movement activists had a grand and detailed vision for what was supposed to happen on Feb. 11. They called it a "Trojan Horse" strategy: Backers of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, camouflaged in unassuming attire, would attend the official regime-backed rally commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Then, at a pre-arranged time, they would assemble in front of the cameras of the foreign news media, reveal themselves as enthusiasts of the green movement, and denounce the brutality of the government for all the world to see.

As we all know, however, there was no great reveal at the official rally: The plan didn't work, and Feb. 11 will be remembered by Iran's activists not as a triumph, but as a disappointment. And the scale of the setback, which has placed a significant damper on the movement's spirits, is closely tied to the specificity and grandiosity of the visions that were being cultivated in the preceding weeks via blogs, forwarded emails, and social networking sites.

Iranian activists have long reaped the benefits of Internet communication, but especially in the months since the June 12 election, they have also fallen prey to its pitfalls. Reassured by their own online echo chambers, activists and participants allowed their optimism to grow like a market bubble -- a bubble that, many say, was popped on Thursday.

Now, many of the greens are experiencing a sort of idealism hangover. Mohammad Sadeghi, the 27-year old Iranian-German who administers Mousavi's official Facebook page, admits that he doesn't know what comes next. He has always managed to be one step ahead of the manifold events of the past year, but now he's at a loss.

He created the Facebook page last January, before Mousavi had even officially declared his candidacy, back in the days when Facebook was still freely accessible to any Internet user in Iran. In the following months, after the page had attracted a small but devoted following, Mousavi's campaign reached out to him, expressing its desire to consult and cooperate with him in the run-up to the election.

After the election, Mousavi's Tehran-based campaign and his Germany-based Facebook site experienced diverging fates. Layers of campaign staff were hauled off to Iranian prisons, while the Facebook site saw an explosion in followers. Sadeghi decided that he had a responsibility to independently continue the campaign in Mousavi's name, to serve as a meeting place, conference room, and bulletin board for sympathizers and activists. By his account, the Facebook page played a key role in propagating the defiant nightly "Allahu Akbar" chant and organizing the protest schedule linked to major Iranian and Shiite holidays.

But Sadeghi also admits that he and his Facebook followers had only planned their activities through Feb. 11. He had supposed that by this point the movement's strength would be so manifest, and the regime's legitimacy so tattered, that the greens could finally enter negotiations and the protest movement would become unnecessary. Now, Sadeghi sees dark days ahead: He thinks the people of Iran are doomed to weather a military coup, an anarchic civil war, or international sanctions that cause mass suffering.

Like many of the green movement activists, Sadeghi's belief in the protests seems related to their "horizontal organization," the fact that they were structured without hierarchies. This was supposed to be the great strength of the movement, but it is also an abiding weakness. A horizontal organization can't clearly delineate different roles to different people according to their strengths; it can't reward those who participate, or sanction those who hesitate. Facebook enabled many young Iranians to forget these points. Though Sadeghi says he's addressing green activists in Iran when he posts on Mousavi's Facebook site, he admits that he doesn't know what percentage of his followers are even in the country, and the official statistics suggest that the vast majority are abroad.

Ultimately, the blessings of new technology do not eliminate the tried and true virtues of institution-building. It's often recalled that the Islamic Revolution succeeded not least because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini so savvily subverted his imposed exile in Iraq and France by means of cassette recordings denouncing the shah. It's less remarked upon that Khomeini had developed over the previous decades an organization of followers that was prepared not only to distribute his cassettes, but also to develop institutions that adhered to his vision. Khomeini succeeded not only because of his reach of his spiritualism, or the fervor he aroused with his rhetoric, but because of his commitment to old-fashioned political spade work.

The disappointment of Feb. 11 should be used as an opportunity for a clear-eyed look at the relationships that have developed among activists by means of Internet technology, as well as at the role that technology should play in any deep political change in Iran. Activists outside of the country should check their enthusiasm with the reminder that they can't participate in protests in Iran, that at most they can facilitate communications about them or observe them at a remove. Indeed, it would be most effective if they focused on pressuring the governments in their own resident countries to pay the in-country Iranian activists more heed.

Furthermore, all activists should remember that mass movements in Iran are going to rely heavily on methods of spreading information that don't require regular Web access and proxy servers to get around government filters and monitoring. Text messaging proved much more important in the first major post-election protests than did Internet sites. Word of mouth shouldn't be neglected either, especially among the traditional classes that may be suspicious of upheaval.

And rather than ever insisting on the horizontal nature of the movement, Iran's Internet activists -- and the Internet's Iran activists -- should more properly give Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammed Khatami their due as the putative leaders of the campaign. The many-voiced, every-man-for-himself spirit of the Iranian blogosphere is an admirable exercise of the freedom of expression, but it is not the ideal way for a group to concentrate its energies in negotiations with a hostile state.

Cynicism and despair may be the order of the day among Iranian activists. They would do well, though, to remember that social movements on this scale are not a sprint, but a marathon. In fact, that's another lesson that might be learned from Khomeini -- he began his agitations against the shah in the early 1960s, a good 15 years before he began realizing his visions of an Islamic state. The greens may be working to subvert that vision, but they would do well to endorse his cunning patience. Indeed, it's the exception, not the rule, that regimes have fallen by means of a Trojan Horse.

Cameron Abadi is a Berlin-based writer for Die Zeit and Spiegel International.



Rich Dog, Poor Dog

China's new class struggle.

View a slideshow about a dog's life in China

Two years ago, while visiting Changsha, the dusty provincial capital of China's Hunan province, I decided to take a walk into the crowded lanes and alleys behind my hotel. I'd been in countless lower-middle-class Chinese neighborhoods like this one, and the sounds were happily familiar to me: the sizzle of frying food, the clanking bells of bicycle vendors, and the loudly insistent voices of the province's famously temperamental residents. But a few minutes into my walk, I heard something unfamiliar and alarming: the howl of an animal -- a dog, I thought -- in pain. Curious, I followed the sound around one corner, and then another, until I came across a sight whose painful memory I've never been able to shake: A medium-sized mutt hung by its rear legs from a rope, while two shirtless young men beat it to death with clubs. At their feet, the pulverized remains of additional dead dogs were sprawled like bags of water. Instinctively, I reached for the camera that I carry with me when traveling. But just as I was about to shoot, one of the two men noticed me -- a white foreigner -- and pointed his club in my direction. He was clearly aware that my interest was disapproving, and I had no interest in pressing the issue.

Residents of Changsha have been eating dog for centuries, and ethical questions like whether beating is an acceptable means of slaughter have rarely come to the fore (some aficionados claim that the method ensures more flavorful meat). But due in part to a recently introduced draft law on animal cruelty (China's first), that situation is changing. The proposed law, first circulated last fall, could subject individuals who sell or eat cat and dog meat to U.S. $725 in fines ($7,250 for institutions), up to 15 days in jail, and required statements of repentance. Now the Chinese media and the country's raucous Internet discussion boards are in the throes of something akin to a clash in America's culture wars, with attitudes toward the proposed legislation dividing Chinese by regional and socioeconomic lines. In China, where cuisine is often an issue of identity and rural and urban populations are deeply sensitive to mutual perceptions and misperceptions, the proposed legislation has a symbolic resonance that few other recent social issues have shared. It's a wedge issue, China-style.

According to a study done by the College of Veterinary Medicine at the China Agricultural University, pet ownership expands rapidly when per capita annual GDP reaches $3,000. This benchmark was reached years ago in Shanghai, Beijing, and other first-tier Chinese cities, and sure enough, pet ownership has expanded rapidly there. In Beijing, for example, dog ownership expanded from 100,000 pets to 1.5 million between 2001 and 2007; not coincidentally, during the same period, Beijing's pet stores increased from fewer than 20 to more than 500. Meanwhile, trade shows devoted to the pet industry have spread rapidly across China, and -- based on my visit to a 2005 show in Guangzhou -- the attendees are mostly Chinese interested in marketing chew toys to the urban middle class.

Although not all of China's pet owners can be judged as wealthy, one would be hard-pressed to think otherwise during a walk through Xujiahui Park, a sprawling maze of paths on the southern edge of Shanghai's French Concession, favored by Shanghai's elite -- and their dogs. During winter months, the pedigrees of these pampered pooches -- each requiring a $291 license, roughly 39 percent of per capita rural income in 2009 -- is evident not only in their shiny coats, but also in the custom-cut clothes in which some of their owners insist upon dressing them. In recent weeks alone, I've seen a poodle in silk slippers and a schnauzer in a fur-lined blue silk coat complete with a mandarin collar. When Beijing authorities pulled dog from restaurant menus in advance of the 2008 Olympics, it was the cosmopolitan sensibilities of this demographic (and their sensitivity to foreign perceptions of Chinese culinary traditions) that drove the decision. And when, in the early summer of 2009, reports began to circulate that 37,000 dogs had been beaten to death in an anti-rabies campaign in rural Shaanxi province, it was this pet-owning demographic that objected most vociferously, especially online. The animal-cruelty law, drafted by Chang Jiwen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, was in part a direct reaction to this incident.

Famously, pet ownership had been outlawed as a bourgeois affectation during the Cultural Revolution, and though that prohibition is now history, the legacy of the prohibition remains strong outside China's more cosmopolitan quarters, where income, agricultural lifestyles, and culinary tastes have much in common with pre-boom China. Indeed, as incomes rise in China's wealthiest cities, those in rural China remain relatively stagnant, creating the oft-mentioned Chinese income gap. In 2009, for example, per capita income among China's urban residents was 3.34 times that of its rural residents, or $2,515 and $754, respectively. This income gap is also a social gap, expressed in differing access to education, social services, and even political rights, and the resulting cultural gap creates contempt and resentment. In Shanghai and other wealthy cities, few comedic tropes are quite so popular as the bumpkin come to the big city; in rural China, few figures are quite so loathed as the Shanghai sophisticate who looks down upon their long-held traditions.

Animal protection is the perfect proxy for these tensions. In simple terms, it pits rural, traditional Chinese against the young cultural firmament. But regionalism is only one component of the disagreements. On New Year's Day, I was awakened by the pained cries of a goose being slaughtered in the hallway of my Shanghai apartment building by the children of my elderly neighbors. When I mentioned that, perhaps, the hallway was a less-than-ideal place for this grisly act, I was told pointedly that "foreigners should keep out of our traditions." But it wasn't just me: Many of my neighbors, mostly younger and more educated than the goose eaters, were just as irritated, if not distraught, by these dinner preparations.

Class tensions worry Beijing. Although there's no chance that pet ownership and animal cruelty could cause insurrection (though it has been the cause of protest in the past, including a raucous 2006 picket at a Beijing zoo), there's also little chance that leaders are going to allow passage of a largely symbolic, mostly unenforceable act that implicitly pits those who can afford a Shanghai dog license against those who can't and won't. Until that gap is bridgeable, China's stray dogs would best be advised to keep their tails down