June 15, 2009

On Technology and Revolution (updated)

Today's Washington Post had a really interesting op-ed by two U.S. pollsters:

Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin -- greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday's election.


While Western news reports from Tehran in the days leading up to the voting portrayed an Iranian public enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad's principal opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, our scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran's provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.

Now that bit about Ahmadinejad was interesting enough, but here's what really caught my eye:

Much commentary has portrayed Iranian youth and the Internet as harbingers of change in this election. But our poll found that only a third of Iranians even have access to the Internet, while 18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups.

Why do I find this to be interesting? Two reasons. The first has to do with the way in which we Westerners might confuse the protests of the young, urban, and technologically savvy to be somehow representative of the population at large. The urbane urban classes of the Earth see themselves in each other. Persons living in New York and London might have more in common with one another than they would with persons from Sale Creek, Tennessee and Glencoe, Scotland, respectively. And those same urban classes might identify with those Western-clothed, rioting youths protesting in Farsi and English on the streets of Tehran. But are their protests representative of Iranian people overall?* Are we simply finding common cause with a technologically-assisted minority and confusing it for a popular movement? One observer of the Moldova protests noticed the way in which we Westerners get fascinated by "Twitter revolutions" because, hey! We use Twitter too! Elsewhere, sceptics wonder how much effect these technologies really have.

Second, another observation that came out of the Moldova protests was this maxim: Live by Twitter, Die by Twitter. Social networking technology like Twitter, Facebook and cellular phones allows all kinds of new capabilities -- such as the ability to call for a flash mob outside parliament on 30 minutes notice, far too quick for the authorities to respond. But what happens when the state simply shuts down all wireless networks? Or bans Facebook? Now what are you going to do? If you grow too dependent on social media the state can shut down, you've got a pretty big weakness. The counter-revolutionary forces, of course, have all kinds of secondary communications equipment they can use. The revolutionary forces might not.

*I should note here that the sample of the survey cited seemed small. But it's the best hard data I have seen. If anyone can offer other data, leave links in the comments section.

UPDATE: To go along with my own asterisk, ABC's director of polling has some harsh things to say. And in the comments section, there are helpful links to analysis by Juan Cole on the rural/urban divide and other good comments. My favorite, though, is this helpful tip for any Iranian readers, from everyone's favorite Norwegian anarchist:

[S]omeone should make a how-to book on rioting in farsi. You dont throw rocks 60 meters away, dammit, and one garbagebin does not a barricade make.

Sound advice.