Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Take on the InternetJanuary 8th, 2009 — idteam
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) at the end of 2008 made a historic announcement: a project to launch 10,000 blogs for the paramilitary Basij forces. (1)
IRGC’s official press organ, Sobh Sadegh, writes that it considered the Internet and other digital devices including SMS as a threat to be controlled. It announced that the 10,000 blogs will promote revolutionary ideas. IRGC considers the Internet as an instrument for a “velvet revolution” and warned that foreign countries have invested in this tool to topple the Islamic Regime.
The use of social networking or blogging by military forces is not new. The U.S. Army has launched a video series that documents events in Iraq. (2) A series of blogs have also covered military activities in a number of countries, including Sri Lanka. (3)
What makes the IRGC project particularly interesting is its uniquely large scale, its timing and its possible consequences.
For years, different political groups, ranging from leftist students and women activists to ready-to-be-martyrs Hezbollah members, have been active in the blogosphere. Reformist politicians and hardliners such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discovered blogging years ago.
It seems that IRGC, an ideologically motivated military force with important business interests in the country, is acting like a supermarket that wants to establish its shops all over the city and shut down small groceries by any means necessary. But why now?
Uncontrolled bytes bite
Iranian authorities control all TV and radio programming in the country. Almost all newspapers that express an independent viewpoint have been banned. The only media tool available for Iranian citizens and the civil society movement is the Internet. And they use it as a tool to both inform and organize.
For example, last year information about corruption emerged on Iranian Web sites and blogs, which had an impact in real life. Such news challenged Ayatholas, informed people about student demonstrations and the repression of women by security agents, and forced some high-ranked officials to resign. The Islamic republic finally had to face non-controlled information and the reaction from the public.
In early summer 2008, a member of Iran’s Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, Abbas Palizdar, created a scandal by accusing several top clerics and influential members of the Islamic Republic of corruption in a speech at Booali University in Hamadan. (4) He offered details of many illegal business deals and criminal offences, and pointed the finger at several of Iran’s leading political figures, including influential Ayatollahs. Video footage of the speech spread through blogs and Internet media. Palizadar was arrested, and for the first time high-ranking clerics were named and shamed.
In another event in summer 2008, students at Zanjan University in northwest Iran recorded and uploaded a video of their school’s vice president, Hassan Madadi, with his shirt unbuttoned. He was allegedly preparing to have sex with a female student. Several Iranian websites and blogs say the female student had alerted her university’s Islamic Student Association that he had pressured her to have sex with him. (5)
These two examples only begin to show the growing impact of Iranian citizen media.
Iranian bloggers have used the Internet to talk about demonstrations against dictatorship and gender discrimination, or to support political prisoners.
According to officials, 5 million blogs and sites have been filtered. But it seems that filtering has not had the desired impact.
A good example of the inefficiency of filtering is the Campaign4equality case. This feminist site has been filtered 18 times. It seems that civil activists have not been discouraged by the filtering policy.
The Iranian government continues to put pressure on cyber activists but it is almost impossible to fight the ones who are anonymous.
Since filtering and repression does not stop the civil rights movement from growing, then it is IRGC’s turn to play the game.
IRGC is the military force that enforces Islamic Revolution principles, just like the Turkish army that protects secularism. IRGC realized that the Internet and the free flow of information is out of its control and can hurt the regime. Does IRCG have a solution? Is 10,000 is the magic number?
Mass production of toothless soldiers
The Basij (Persian for “mobilization”) is a large and omnipresent paramilitary organization with multifaceted roles, such as repressing urban unrest. It created human-wave attacks against Iraqi forces during the final years of the Iran-Iraq war. It seems that IRCG took the wrong virtual path through Tehran’s streets and battlefields in that war.
The presence of 10,000 Basiji blogs without interesting content and quality will fail to attract readers or promote any ideas. The Islamic Republic’s state-controlled media has been a failure for three decades. The Iranian regime in recent years launched several TV channels, but even poor-quality satellite dishes became a must-have for millions of Iranians to access banned foreign films, music clips or news.
The Islamic Republic easily banned certain journals and magazines, but it failed to attract readers to its conservative Keyhan and similar publications.
The Islamic Republic will likely end up with another failed scenario in the media world, this time in the blogsphere.
The Iranian State has supported a cleric-controlled organization, the Office for Religious Blogs Development, to promote religious bloggers in the last two years. Yet, this organization has come under fire from Islamists for its lack of revolutionary zeal.
Blogs are personal and accessible, with no intermediaries. They are where people express their ideas and opinions. In contrast, Basij blogs probably will be a mass production of obedient voices who will be careful about the content of their posts as Big Brother watches them.
According to Harvard University’s Berkman Center study, a very significant number of Islamist bloggers who support the Islamic Republic write anonymously.(6) The main reason is that red lines are not defined in the Islamic Republic. These same ill-defined red lines will restrain any free action and thought in mass-produced blogs. They are an invisible border that makes people shut up and be censored.
Basij forces have a reputation for loyalty to Islamic leaders — ready to repress and sacrifice. Such characteristics are not an asset in the Iranian blogosphere. Perhaps the IRGC should open a military base in Second Life and try to chase Iranian activists there, if it is able to find any.