Media Analysis: Impact of Social Media in Times of Crisis

//Crossposted from The Iran Media Program Research Page (August 28th, 2012), courtesy of ASL19

The Impact of Social Media in Times of Crisis

In the past few weeks, social networking websites have seen an increased amount of online activities by Iranian Internet users. The recent earthquake in the East Azerbaijan province has resulted in a resurgence of Iranian users in cyberspace. This new wave of online movement, which has drawn pundits’ attention, is explained in more details of this report.

IRIB’s lackluster coverage and the aftermath

A number of social media websites have criticized the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s (IRIB) performance in covering the news after the earthquake. During the few hours after the earthquake, while the natural disaster was being widely covered by national and international online news agencies, IRIB continued its ordinary scheduled programming. In the following days, IRIB continued to downplay the significance of this disaster and in spite of the increasing number of deaths, screened a comedy show instead.

As a result, waves of protests and criticisms were started by Internet users and media activists. Many reformist, centrist, and even members of the conservative press, (such as Asr-e Iran, Tabnak, and Shafaf News), criticized IRIB’s failure to cover the disaster. When the criticisms became widespread and impossible to ignore, IRIB, the government, and even Iran’s Supreme Leader considerably altered their positions. As the pressure mounted, IRIB apologized to the public and earthquake news became the top story of Iran’s official state media. Additionally, Ayatollah Khamenei visited the quake-stricken areas in order to show his support of the survivors.

Reactions to the rejuvenation of social media sites

The last time Iranian citizens turned to social media for voicing their unrest was after the 2009 presidential election. During that time, cyber-activists relied heavily on social media and social networking websites to spread the details of the post-election fallout to those outside of Iran. In response, the Iranian government swiftly blocked several social media websites, attempting to curtail these efforts and to keep the international community in the dark about the methods used by Iranian authorities to quell protests.

Since the post-election protests, many felt social media had lost its efficiency to a great extent, and it was assumed that citizens could no longer rely on it as an effective tool for change. However, after the earthquake, when the public and cyber-activists used social media as the main forum to cover the news, show their support, raise financial aid, and explore innovative ways to help survivors, they proved that online organizing is still very much alive, highlighting the importance of social networks once again.

Various pro-government media outlets have also confirmed the fact that although social media has been forgotten for some time, it turned out to be very effective after the earthquake. After Ayatollah Khamenei visited the quake-hit areas, Jaras website, a reformist news agency supportive of the Green Movement, called this “the direct result of public solidarity in cyberspace.” In addition the article explained that “if social networking websites would continue to scrutinize the government every now and then, they would become the leading player in the power games between the state media and the government itself.”

Mohammad Javad Akbarein, a journalist and news analyst, also wrote that “[the] earthquake was more than a motive for reformation of social media; it showed that, in some cases,  the public can defeat government censorship through resilience to achieve their desired goals. In this case, many believe that it was a victory for the Iranian people in their long battle against media censorship.

Analysis

After the post-election unrests in 2009 and regardless of their political or religious views, Iranians have united around three occasions: sensitivities toward the “Persian Gulf” renaming, Iranian athletes in world-wide competitions, and the recent earthquake in East Azerbaijan. Referring to these examples, many cyber and political activists regard social media as one of the most powerful political and social tools to promote democracy. This analysis takes into consideration two possible explanations – content and method – to explain the reasons behind usage of social media in raising awareness for the tragedy and subsequently, altering the government’s course of action.

First, the power of social media, in some cases, is intricately linked to the content it promotes. As Solomon Messing and Sean J. Westwood argue, the value of social media can be attributed to public reliance on information dissemination that is free of political bias:

…the socialization of Internet news fundamentally alters the context in which news reading occurs, providing a venue that promotes exposure to news from politically heterogeneous individuals, and which serves to emphasize social value rather than partisan affiliation.

The politically heterogeneous individuals in Iran’s case were comprised of online activists, government critics, reformists, centrists, and members of the conservative party. The unification of these traditional foes in time of crisis was due to the fact that criticism directed towards government-sponsored media was a universal appeal based on humanitarian grounds, rather than a smear campaign to achieve political ends.

Moreover, none of the aforementioned examples involved sensitive sociopolitical issues, and as such, promoting them in cyberspace is less likely to bring about harmful consequences for the participating users. The lack of government reprisal combined with pro-government media joining the public in voicing their dissatisfaction significantly reduced people’s concerns of taking part in the online campaigns and activities.

Second, the above principle is linked with the method in which social media was used to raise awareness of both the earthquake and IRIB’s failure to cover the disaster. Some commentators have argued that social media amplifies the message of its users in an accessible way across socio-economic backgrounds.  In Iran, while there are some stringent censorship mechanisms in place to filter websites such as Facebook and Twitter, widespread public use of VPNs and proxies circumvent some of that government filtering. The true collective power of social media, combined with an interactive web’s ability to immediately disseminate information regardless of time or physical space creates a powerful tool for the Iranian public during trying situations. Sarah Joseph is helpful to point out that

By making “on the ground” eyewitness accounts widely available, social media has expanded access to information in an important new way. Reporting is no longer confined to traditional sources like journalists; instead, social media grants access to unfiltered information related by any person affected by an event who chooses to share the story.

Conclusion

The use of social media after the Eastern Azerbaijan earthquake marked only the third time in which Iranians used this method to advocate for non-political change. The subsequent result of government acknowledgement, IRIB’s apology, and Khamenei’s visit to the quake-hit areas suggested that, in some cases, Iranians are able to successfully alter government actions through social media on contextual basis. This victory is no small feat, as it shows the potential for future campaigns towards reforming government actions in social and cultural realms.

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