An April 12 conference held in Washington assessed Iran's social-networking sphere. Panelists asserted that even in the face of severe government repression, the vibrancy of Iran's blogosphere is offering the international community opportunities to develop citizen diplomacy and people-to-people connections with Iranians.
The conference, titled Iran's Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices: Risks and Rewards of Engagement, was sponsored by the US Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University.
In her keynote address, Azar Nafisi, an Iranian writer residing in the United States, and author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir, called for a massive international effort to help Iranians connect with the outside world. "Do not feel sorry for Iranian people," Nafisi said, referring to the violent government crackdown in Tehran following the controversial 2009 presidential election. "They have taken responsibility for their lives. And they have refused to be victims." She went on to urge individuals in Western democracies to "support their voices, and to add your voice to them, and to communicate to them."
According to data compiled by Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Iranian blogosphere comprises about 70,000 blogs that are updated at least once per week. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of other Internet users in Iran who post news and opinion on blogs on a less frequent basis. In contrast, "the Arabic-language blogosphere is roughly half that, with about 35,000 blogs," Dayem said.
This data, Dayem added, "really gives you an idea as to how active the Iranian blogosphere is," despite the wide range of censorship tools used by the Iranian government to muzzle the dissemination of independent opinion. In his assessment, Iranian officials "are perhaps only really second to China" in the extent and sophistication of their censorship, Dayem said. For example, Iran has the only government in the Middle East "that is developing its own soft- and hardware to filter and block," Dayem added.
Hida Fouladvand, who works for VOA Persian News Network TV, explored the importance of international broadcasting for Iranian bloggers, saying that the events of the past year have demonstrated "when the Iranians want to pursue information, they have ways to do it."
Fouladvand related that there were 22 million visits to the VOA Persian website during the past year, adding that VOA listeners were no longer mostly older people. Instead, 70 percent of those accessing the site in recent months are 30 years old or under. To best address this audience, VOA is using social-networking tools to reach them--including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube--as well as more traditional TV and radio broadcasts.
Geneive Abdo, an Iran Analyst at The Century Foundation, said several Iranians have told her that the blogosphere is an important means of communications for Iranians who are "not necessarily identified as part of the opposition." Without blogs, these people would lack essential information about developments in their country, due to state censorship, Abdo noted.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.