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Revolutionary Innovation: The Power of New Media

Over the past couple weeks I followed the election in Iran and the subsequent protests. I was struck by something that made this uprising different those that I had seen before.

Twenty years ago chaos struck Tiananmen Square as the people clashed with the People’s Liberation Army over the right to mourn the death of a reformist government figure. Two decades ago it took weeks and months for images of the uprising to make it to the western press. Charlie Cole of Newsweek had to hide film of his historic photo of “Tank Man” in a toilet while the Public Security Bureau searched his hotel room. When he was finally able to smuggle the film out of the country, the photo was recognized as one of the most influential photographs of the past century.

The recent situation in Iran unfolded differently. Despite the efforts of the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), images and video of the protests made their way immediately to the world-wide media, not through foreign journalists hiding in the streets, but by the protesting people of Iran themselves using cell phone video, Youtube , Facebook, and Twitter. While it had previously taken weeks to learn the story of “Tank Man,” the story of Neda Agha-Soltan spread rapidly throughout the world, prompting the denouncement of the Iranian suppression by the entire western world and even some Muslim countries. The Revolutionary Guard expelled foreign journalists, but it didn’t help, they tried to shut down access to Facebook, Twitter and banned SMS messages, but the people circumvented them, every effort taken by the government to control the images and stories of the revolt were defeated by the people and the technology in their hands. In his book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote of the power of the people that was exercised by the control of the mass media. In Iran, the people showed the power that they could wield over the media.

This was all made possible by the innovative communications technologies that were introduced over the past decade. Camera phones, SMS, and MMS technologies allowed protesters to pass on their stories. Social media spread their stories like brushfire across the ubiquitous internet.

In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama rode a tidal wave of small personal donations into the White House. A feat thought impossible just months before. As we reflect this weekend on the founding of our great democracy, we can rest assured that it is more democratic than ever before, at least partially due to the democratizing effect of our own recent innovations. Now, with the people of Iran fighting for control of their own country, the democratizing effect of innovative communication technology is once again making an impact. Bringing power, truly, to the people.

By: Demetrius Madrigal