Facebook brings big changes to Iran politics

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In Iran, where mosques once served as the primary campaign stump for political candidates, Facebook is changing the face of the presidential election.

Nearly half of Iran's 46 million eligible voters are under age 30, which means victory in Friday's presidential election can be achieved only with significant support from young voters.

No candidate seems to understand this better than primary reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has become the country's first politician to wield the power of the Internet as a major campaign tool. To reach out to Iran's youth, he created a page on the popular networking site Facebook, which as of yesterday had garnered more than 30,000 supporters. Mr. Mousavi also uses Twitter and has even launched his own YouTube channel.

"Reformists are using Facebook to bypass official state media, which explicitly or implicitly favors the current administration," said Mehdi Semati, associate professor of communication at Eastern Illinois University and editor of the book "Media, Culture and Society in Iran."

The government of Iran, a theocratic republic based on Islamic law, restricts basic rights, including freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

In the past, mosques have provided a gathering place where candidates can speak to supporters or where people can pass out fliers and hold rallies.

"In Iran, mosques and official media have the same message these days," Mr. Semati said. "So where do you go to campaign?"

Mr. Mousavi and fellow reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who also has a Facebook page, have taken to the virtual streets of cyberspace.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is seeking re-election to a second four-year term, may have sensed the threat. With little support from young voters, he is blamed for the country's failing economy, its growing unemployment rate and the tight restrictions on freedom.

When the Iranian government suddenly blocked access to Facebook within that country on May 23, accusations arose that authorities were trying to thwart the campaign efforts of Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi. But asked about the ban at a news conference a couple days later, Mr. Ahmadinejad claimed he was "not aware" of it and said he would investigate.

Access to Facebook was restored the next day.

"It looks like [the Iranian government is] going to have to put up with Facebook because it has become a part of Mousavi's message," said Mr. Semati. "So if they shut it down, they'll prove his point that this administration can't deal with free expression."

As of last year, approximately 35 percent of Iran's 65 million people had access to the Internet, according the Internet World Stats research site. While the use of Facebook for campaigning is relatively new, the Internet has been used for political purposes in the past.

"Iran has upward of 700,000 Web logs and somewhere between 70,000 and 200,000 are active Web logs," said Mr. Semati. "In the last election, blogs created a public space that was not controlled by the state."

Sepideh Jodeyri, an Iranian poet and translator living in the nation's capital of Tehran, turned to the Internet to share her writing with more people. Her husband, a journalist, started a blog and a Web site where they publish their work.

"If you want to promote an idea, the easiest way is to have a blog, because most university students and journalists do blogging and visit other blogs," she said.

Many Iranian politicians, including all four of this year's presidential candidates, have their own Web sites or blogs.

The Internet and Facebook are changing other parts of Iranian life, too, which is hampering the government's efforts to maintain an Islamic society. The site has become a venue for greater socialization between men and women that often leads to dating, which is forbidden in Islam.

"Facebook is a virtual space wherein Iranians inside and outside the country can interact in ways impossible to control," said Babak Rahimi, assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Mr. Rahimi is in Iran conducting research on the politics of Facebook there, along with his colleague Elham Gheytanchi, a sociology professor at Santa Monica College.

Although the government has blocked access to certain Web sites in the past, the actions don't follow a systematic pattern.

"[W]hy unblock Facebook and, at the same time, limit access to other sites online? One plausible answer is that the authorities randomly censor to give the appearance of being in control. ... The other explanation is that it is election season and, with a controversial administration in power, it may seem that the authorities tend to permit some social freedom so to encourage younger people to vote," they wrote in a report of their findings.

Mr. Semati added that the government has put itself in a precarious situation when it comes to controlling the Internet. "The Iranian government has been backed into a corner by playing politics [with Facebook], opening it and closing it. There's no way out of it."

While Mr. Mousavi's Internet campaign started small with a single Facebook page, it soon took on a life of its own as young Iranians used the social networking site to mobilize support for the candidate.

"In some ways, you can compare it to the campaign of Mr. [Barack] Obama. A lot of it is grass roots," Mr. Semati said. "Many student groups are organizing it."

Mr. Rahimi and Ms. Gheytanchi said that while open Internet discussions will likely not contribute to any long-term change in Iranian politics, "they have created instances of defiance against an authoritarian regime that has denied its citizens basic civil rights."

No incumbent in the history of the Islamic Republic has lost re-election, but a recent poll conducted by Iran's Ayandeh News shows Mr. Mousavi is leading in 10 major cities in Iran.

"The 10th presidential election has become a very hot subject in Iran since three or four months ago ... and it is because the Iranian reform movement has acted more powerful," Ms. Jodeyri said.

Elham Khatami can be reached at ekhatami@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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