Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, May 06, 2016

Democratic action without democracy?

If a regime is built to frustrate the will of the people, is it possible for "subversives" to act in ways to facilitate following the will of the people?

The author is Shervin Malekzadeh, a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College. He is a political scientist whose research interests include the politics of identity and modern state formation. He is a regular visitor to Iran.

How Iranians’ use of an app is changing politics and civil society
In recent years, platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have become effective instruments for the mobilization of voter participation in Iranian elections… Though a crucial component in the current reformist strategy to use the vote… as part of the long march of incrementalism is hardly the stuff of revolutions. Largely unnoticed outside of Iran and lacking the dramatics of large-scale protests, Iranians’ use of their tablets and smartphones to persuade each other — and themselves — to participate in a deeply flawed electoral system nonetheless offers the best measure of citizenship and civil society in Iran today. It is the manner of their participation that we need to pay more attention to, the ad hoc mobilization of millions of families and friends in the days and weeks leading up to election day, a ground game almost always self-forming and rooted in an informal politics from below.

Over the past year these efforts have converged on a single messaging application, Telegram. Last month, Narges Bajoghli described how Telegram’s end-to-end encryption has made it possible for Iranians to engage in open dialogue about politics without fear of government surveillance…

[M]y research in Iran on social media this past February indicates that the successful mobilization of reformist and moderate factions mostly occurred across channels with little to no connection with the elections and those specifically not devoted to political discussion.

Telegram’s particular appeal and power as an instrument of political organization lies in not only its online security but also its ease of use… The app organizes conversations by discrete channels, sorted into categories reflecting the dizzying variety of ordinary life. These groups soon began to intersect: the retired schoolteachers of District 6 in Tehran, say, naturally overlapping with the fanatics of the Persepolis football club and the members of the Sistan Baluchestan mountaineering society, all of them converging on the channel dedicated to “Stage,” a live-singing competition broadcast out of London and the latest obsession of Iranian audiences around the world.

To borrow from Robert Putnam, this bridging effect — a phenomenon in which diverse groups interact and increase their shared social capital — is important among Telegram users because retail politics continues to be the coin of the realm in Iran. The decision to vote tends to be deeply personal, very often made on behalf of a friend, relative or loved one at the last possible moment… Telegram amplifies these existing traditional networks rather than replacing them… Already gathered in a safe, non-politicized, place online, it is a small step for a handful of enthusiasts to mobilize acquaintances or “weak ties” using Telegram around a particular political faction.

For Iran’s reform movement, mobilization is a non-negotiable imperative as low turnout… always favors conservatives… The opposition begins each electoral cycle already in the hole… Making matters worse, these lost votes are roughly matched — 15 percent to 20 percent — by dyed-in-the-wool regime stalwarts who always vote, and always in favor of the conservatives.

Reformists simply cannot afford to leave any voter behind…

Telegram made this difficult work of mobilization much easier… Designed to be a medium of visual as well as textual exchange, Telegram’s architecture enabled organizers to bring an infectious joyousness to what was otherwise a serious and painstaking process of getting-out-the-vote, the proverbial slow boring of politics’ hard boards made more enjoyable by memes, animated videos and funny stickers featuring the endorsements of prominent celebrities and politicians. Initially produced for distribution on channels dedicated to the campaign, these quickly spread across the spectrum as ordinary users shared content that ranged from primers on the rudiments of voting to clips espousing the ethics of small change over large, to banners mocking hardline politicians.

They spread because they were entertaining. For example, a campaign calling itself Prevention is Better than a Cure featured memes made out of the outrageous statements of hardline MPs…

Telegram also played a critical role in rallying the vote through the distribution of voting lists… Absent a proper party system, the list ensured that votes for the reform and moderate camps would not be fractured on election day, a decision that likely facilitated their sweep of Tehran.

Of course, one might ask whether an app or any other corner of social media can be popular or powerful enough to correct a system with permanent, undemocratic features. It was always the dream of the neo-Tocquevillians that associational life would foster democratic souls… faith remains that civil society and social media can act as instruments of progressive change…

[I]n Iran… social media appears to have encouraged many Iranians to live lives at least partially in the public sphere. Tocqueville’s observation that Americans “of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations” applies to the Iranians, at least in their online selves…

At least part of that excitement carries over into the political realm and was put to great effect in this last set of elections. If nothing else, the vote represents an act of faith that democracy can work in a country where it does not fully exist...

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