Theocracy dot com

Events in Iran show just to what extent the new technologies can affect the political landscape

Can you imagine a technology which was able to turn every book or newspaper we purchased into a printing-press which allowed us to run off and distribute hundreds of books and newspapers to whomever we liked? Or a radio transmitter with a button turning the loudspeaker into a microphone powerful enough to carry our voice to millions of other people instantaneously? And what if every television set was able to magic the front room of our homes into a TV studio where our very own programmes could be recorded and broadcast?

It isn’t hard to see that life in such a world would be very complicated for dictators and dictatorships, which are generally hell bent on publishing books and newspapers geared to indoctrinating their subjects, repeating the same ideology again and again over the radio and on television, and obsessed with snuffing out any spark of dissident thought. Naturally, any dictatorship would feel quite helpless if its subjects had a printer, radio broadcaster or television studio at home.

Fortunately, that technology is now with us, it is known by the rather vulgar name of the internet, and it is causing the dictatorships of the twenty first century to yearn for the days of the twentieth. The previous century was a world with a very high number of information consumers, but a very low number of producers, and creating content was a costly and time consuming business. Today, every consumer can automatically become a producer, and content is distributed practically for free, in real time, to millions of people.

As the case of Iran shows all to well, the new communication technologies are allowing citizens to organise against governments in a way which is completely unprecedented in history. No sooner had the first disturbances started in Iran, than the regime slapped a ban on foreign journalists leaving their homes, and subsequently began to expel them from the country. A nice try certainly, especially in relation to the BBC’s Farsi speaking correspondents whose broadcasts from London obsess the regime to such an extent that it spends millions of dollars trying to disrupt them. In the past, this would have meant a total information black-out. Today, however, thanks to the internet, every dissident is a BBC correspondent, to such an extent that the BBC’s London studios were receiving ten thousand emails a day and three video clips each second no less, all containing information on events taking place there in real time: simply astonishing.

Last week, the Chinese government was forced to back down in its attempt to impose the installation of a firewall in all computers, a measure supposedly geared to curbing pornography, but which many feared was really aimed at tightening Peking’s grip over the internet. The mobilisation of millions of Chinese bloggers has put paid to project “Green Dam”. The historical analogy with the Great Wall of China – another grand, expensive and foolish attempt to isolate China from the outside world – is all too obvious. This time it has been bytes, rather than the nomads from the North, which have exposed the futility of certain types of walls.

The Iranian regime has not only failed when it comes to preventing information getting out of the country, more importantly even still, it has been unable to prevent it circulating within Iran. Mobile phone text messages, social network sites like Twitter or Facebook and web pages have allowed the opposition to organise and continue to gain access to information. BBC broadcasts can be jammed, their correspondents expelled, but the internet has created a horizontal, social communication network which cannot be manipulated or checked. In China or Iran, information has become as liquid as water, and just as impossible to hold back.

Closing down the mobile telephone network, slowing down the internet or tampering with the content of opposition web pages are desperate measures which may be effective in the short term, but which demonstrate the impotence of the Iranian regime in drawing a line under the political crisis which has been sparked by irregularities in the ballot count. There is no need to speculate any more about whether vote rigging occurred; the regime’s own reaction to events confirms that what has taken place is a palace coup  which is experiencing more problems than anticipated in consolidating itself, precisely because Iranian society is much too horizontal for a theocracy.

Theocracies are based on a monopolisation of the discourse, whereas in democracies, it is citizens who have the final say. The regime has talked down to the Iranian people for twenty years now, but it has never allowed them to reply. Now Iranians have discovered they can talk amongst themselves. It is illusory to think that the internet will bring democracy to Iran – it will be the Iranian people who do that -, but it does seem evident that the internet has allowed Iranians to hold the second round of an electoral process whose results have been stolen away from them. Given that the Supreme Leader isn’t on Facebook, he faces a tough task in the second round of voting. [email protected]

This article was published in El País on 6 July 2009. 

(English Translation)

Translated from Spanish by Douglas Wilson

¿Se imaginan una tecnología que pudiera convertir cada libro o periódico que compráramos en una imprenta con la que editar cientos de ejemplares y hacerlos llegar a quien quisiéramos? ¿O que cada receptor de radio tuviera un botón con el cual pudiéramos convertir el altavoz en un micrófono con el cual hacer llegar nuestra voz a millones de personas? ¿O que cada aparato de televisión pudiera convertir el salón de nuestras casas en un estudio desde el que producir y emitir nuestros programas?

En un mundo así no es difícil imaginar lo complicada que sería la vida para las dictaduras, empeñadas en publicar libros y periódicos con los que adoctrinar; adictas a machacar con su doctrina a los ciudadanos vía radio y televisión y obsesionadas con suprimir todo el pensamiento disidente.

Afortunadamente, esa tecnología ya está entre nosotros, Internet, y está haciendo que las dictaduras del siglo XXI echen de menos el siglo XX. Como muestra el caso iraní, las nuevas tecnologías de la comunicación están permitiendo a los ciudadanos organizarse de una forma inédita en la historia. Nada más producirse los primeros disturbios, el régimen prohibió a los periodistas extranjeros salir a la calle y, posteriormente, comenzó a expulsarlos. Buen intento, especialmente en lo que se refiere a los corresponsales del servicio de la BBC en farsi, cuyas emisiones desde Londres obsesionan al régimen hasta el punto de gastar millones de dólares en interferirlas. En el pasado, esto hubiera implicado un apagón informativo total. Hoy, gracias a Internet, todo disidente es un corresponsal de la BBC, de tal manera que en sus estudios de Londres viene recibiendo una media de 10.000 correos electrónicos diarios y tres videoclips por segundo con información en tiempo real sobre lo que allí está ocurriendo. Impresionante.

Esta semana pasada, el Gobierno chino ha tenido que dar marcha atrás en su intento de imponer la instalación en toda computadora de un cortafuegos supuestamente destinado a filtrar la pornografía, pero que muchos temían tuviera como objetivo estrechar aún más el cerco que Pekín mantiene sobre Internet. La movilización de millones de blogueros chinos ha dado al traste con el proyecto Presa Verde. La analogía histórica con la muralla china es más que evidente: esta vez han sido los bytes, no los nómadas del norte, los que han mostrado la inutilidad de algunas murallas.

El régimen iraní no sólo ha fracasado a la hora de evitar que la información salga del país; lo que es más importante, no ha podido evitar que circule dentro. Los mensajes de texto desde los móviles, las redes sociales como Twitter o Facebook y las páginas web han permitido a la oposición coordinarse y seguir informándose. Las emisiones de la BBC se pueden interferir y sus corresponsales pueden ser expulsados, pero Internet ha creado una red de comunicación social horizontal que no puede ser filtrada ni obstaculizada. En China o en Irán la información es ya como el agua: no puede ser detenida.

Cerrar la red de telefonía móvil, ralentizar Internet o filtrar los contenidos de las páginas web de la oposición son medidas a la desesperada que pueden ser efectivas durante algún tiempo, pero que muestran la impotencia del régimen. Ya no hace faltar sospechar del pucherazo: la propia reacción del régimen confirma que estamos ante un golpe de Estado interno que está teniendo más problemas de los previstos para consolidarse, precisamente porque la sociedad iraní es ya demasiado horizontal para que le quepa una teocracia.

Las teocracias se basan en el monopolio de la palabra, en las democracias los ciudadanos tienen la última palabra. Durante veinte años, el régimen ha hablado a los iraníes, pero no les ha permitido responderle. Ahora los ciudadanos han descubierto que pueden hablar entre ellos. Es ilusorio pensar que Internet llevará la democracia a Irán, serán los iraníes los que lo hagan, pero es evidente que Internet ha permitido a los iraníes celebrar la segunda vuelta de unas elecciones cuyos resultados les han robado. El líder supremo no está en Facebook, así que lo tendrá difícil en la segunda vuelta.

Publicado en El País el 6 de Julio de 2009

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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