Twitter in Iran: Where I disagree with Will Heaven vs Josh Shahryar

Will Heaven of the Daily Telegraph and EA‘s Josh Shahryar have been engaged in a battle of words on the role of Twitter in Iran. I think the battle has now drawn to a close. Given the popularity of my previous post on “Where I disagree with Morozov and Shirky on Digital Activism,” I thought I’d continue the series, which also helps me keep track of my notes for my dissertation.


It all started on December 29th when Will published this article in the Daily Telegraph:

Iran and Twitter: the fatal folly of the online revolutionaries

Which he followed up with this blog post, still on the Daily Telegraph:

Iran’s brutal regime won’t be toppled by Twitter and the niceties of social media

This provoked the following response from Josh (the page may be down):

Twitter Revolution 101: Get Your Facts Right

Will in turn replied to Josh’s post with one of his own:

My response to Twitterati: stop putting Iranian lives at risk

Finally, unless I’ve missed another exchange, Josh posted this closing response yesterday:

Iran & Twitter: Last Words on The Hell of Heaven


I copied and pasted this lengthy exchange in a Word document (available here) and did a word count. The debate generated over 7,500 words. That’s about 12 pages, single-space of font-size 10 text. I’ve re-read this document several times and I’m not quite sure what the debate ultimately amounts to. They both make very good points but neither is willing to concede that.

In my opinion, the contentious exchange stems from the use of the word “revolution” and the subsequent arms-race of anecdotes that all too often causes more confusion than clarity. When Will uses the term, “there has been no revolution in Iran,” he implies a political revolution whereas Josh—on several occasions—clearly states that he’s talking about a revolution in information dissemination: “That Revolution is about awareness, not provoking a political revolt or helping it directly.”

In any case, here are my individual comments on their exchange.

My Response to Will

Will: It’s deluded to think that “hashtags”, “Tweets” and “Twibbons” have threatened the regime for a second.

Really? Then why would the regime or sympathetic elements within Iran try to shut it down?

Will: Here’s the other thing “social media experts” will forget to tell you: dictatorships across the world now use their own tools to hunt down online protesters.

I would like to challenge Will to find one “social media expert” who forgets that digital repression is real. Please see my previous blog post on this.

Will: And it is foolish to think that their use [Tor, Freebase] guarantees safety: if the Revolutionary Guard were to find someone using the software, the consequences would be dire.

Both Will and Josh are fixated on technology at the expense of tactics. I think they’d find this guide on how to communicate securely in repressive environments of interest. There needs to be more cross-fertilization between civil resistance strategies and digital activism tactics. See this post for more.

And before either fault me for making the above guide public, all the information in said-guide is already public and available online. Repressive regimes may very well be aware of most of the tactics and technologies used, but just like chess, this doesn’t mean one side can defeat the other at every game.

Will: When you consider the danger posed to Iranians by online participation – compared with what online participation has achieved – the overall result is hardly tangible, and certainly not worth the risks which have been undertaken.

True, perhaps, but a little too passive a statement for my tastes. Those risks are not static, they can be reduced; hence the guide. And hence the need for more education and training in digital activism around the world. See Tactical Tech‘s excellent work in this area, for example.

One other point that Will overlooks (understandably since he doesn’t live in the US) is the stunning shift in perception that took place in the minds of Americans when viewing Iran’s post-election protests. Prior to the elections, the word Iran would generally evoke the following: “Nuclear weapons”, “Kill the Great Satan”, etc. But after young Iranians took to the streets and the protests were documented on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, many Americans finally realized that “the other” was perhaps not that different. The shift in mindset was huge.

My Response to Josh

I largely agree with Josh’s take on the role of Twitter in Iran although I see why it’s easy for Will to carefully select one or two arguments and push back. In any case, I do take issue with this comment:

Josh: The fact that Iranians are dying is not the fault of Westerners. It is not even a fault. It is a sacrifice that Iranians must make to gain their freedom.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) suggests that state sovereignty is contingent on a state protecting it’s citizens. A regime that kills some 400 citizens in response to street protests should hardly have the right to remain sovereign. There should be a Chapter 7 UN mandate with 20,000 observers in Iran to prevent any more violence. Realistically though, I don’t know what the solution to this crisis is, but I do feel that we’re all responsible for the bloodshed.

I definitely disagree with Josh’s implication that revolutions require death and destruction. “Be smart, don’t be dead” is what I tell political activists. There are very good reasons why nonviolent action is called “A Force More Powerful.” Digital activists really need to get up to speed on nonviolent civil resistance tactics and strategies just as the latter need to get up to speed on how to communicate more securely in repressive environments.

Patrick Philippe Meier

10 responses to “Twitter in Iran: Where I disagree with Will Heaven vs Josh Shahryar

  1. Pingback: UPDATED Iran & Twitter: Last Words on The Hell of Heaven (Shahryar) | Enduring America

  2. I agree. Yes, sure non-violence is the way. But the evidence we have so far suggests that no matter how peaceful the protesters are, the government will continue to violate international norms and use violence.

    However, I do concede that my replies were a tad too lengthy. Thanks for reminding me. I think I’ll keep that mind next time I write.

  3. Agreed again.

    I do think they have tried non-violent methods such as graffiti, writing “Death to the Dictator” on banknotes and such. Do you think that has been effective enough?

    • Good question. Enough for what? For an overthrow of the regime? Or for destabilization? If the former, no, at least not yet. But throwing violence at the problem is more likely to be counter-productive, particularly in the transition period. If you mean “effective enough” for continuing destabilization, the perhaps yes. But I’m absolutely no Iran expert. Successful civil resistance movements do have some things in common, though. One of them is their success in building a wide, cross-sectoral coalition. I don’t think we’re quite there yet in Iran. We haven’t yet seen mass civil disobedience across the entire country or seen local police switching sides, for example.

  4. Very interesting perspective Mr Meier. Thank you for sharing.

    A point that I think comes through in Josh’s discussion, perhaps implicitly, is the mentality of those taking to the streets. A combination of history and religion have a significant influence on the mindset of the protestors. All agree that non-violence is the path to work towards but as Josh points out, many are willin to make the ultimate sacrafices for their beliefs and freedom.

  5. To follow up to my comment, the historical component I refer to is a history or one could say culture going back throughout Iranian/Persian history of opposition to oppressive forces and the religious component refers most heavily towards the reverance of martrdom eg imam hossein.

    Best of luck with your dissertation and thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Thank you very much, Mr. Meier, for this excellent insight into the situation. I wonder if you would comment on the question of whether civil disobedience will be effective in achieving the goal of secular democracy in Iran if you accept the premise that the current government is no longer a theocracy, if it ever was, but is actually more like an organized crime ring.

    Has anyone ever tried using civil disobedience to reassert law and order against a crime gang before? Would that really work? A spokesman for the Regime recently said he thought it would be worthwhile to kill as many as 75,000 Iranians if necessary to preserve the Islamic Republic in its current form.

    Can nonviolence really unseat such a committed group of ruthless criminals? Perhaps they do not care what the world thinks of them, as long as the state media runs flattering stories. Perhaps they have no conscience at all and need to be dealt with like an invasion of pestilent insects or a flood, just physically removing the problem.

    I have no idea what the answer is. I would like to believe nonviolence would still work. Theory says it should…but they’re so very ruthless…I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this question.

    • Thanks for your question and comment, Rev. Magdalen. Good question on civil disobedience again crime gangs. Let me touch base with a colleague of mine who might have more insights. I hope she can contribute them here soon.

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