NOTE: cross-posted from DigiActive
Background: On June 14th , Iranian expatriates and supporters in cities across the world protested the results of the June 12th election in which incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad claimed a statistically unlikely landslide victory over challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The new slogan around the world became “where is my vote?” as protesters asked why the votes of Mousavi supporters had not been counted. The campaign, which I will describe below, has both centralized and decentralized elements and has succeeded so far in organizing worldwide protest.
The question is, will this structure allow for the sustained campaigning necessary to overturn the vote? In the language of Gaurav Mishra’s 4 C’s of Social Media, this campaign has achieved Content creation and Collaboration on collective action, but will it be able to create a Community which will sustain longterm action once the Iranian election is gone from the headlines?
Tools: Facebook, Twitter, stand-alone web sites, citizen media sites
How these tools are being used: This campaign began before Election Day.
Setade Ma (meaning “our campaign”), a site launched at the end of May, encouraged voting in the upcoming election. The central action associated with this campaign was worldwide simultaneous demonstrations on May 31st (similar to those that occurred on the 14th). At the May 31st demonstrations, participants around the world were asked to hold banners saying “we vote” and then to submit those photos to the central site, similar to the geographically-dispersed take-a-photo tactic used in the US for the Step it Up campaign against global warning and in Morocco for the Help Erraji campaign. (It is not clear how people outside Iran were actually going to vote in the election, unless Iran has an effective system of absentee ballots, but the goal seemed to be to create a mass movement in favor of voting.) Showing awareness of the ability of social media to spread a campaign, the site also linked to its own Facebook group, Twitter stream, and a page on Balitarin, a community website that helps its users find links of interest on the Iranian Internet.
This previous organizing proved crucial in helping activists to organize worldwide protests only two days after the election on June 14th. The Setade Ma Twitter stream did not end up being particularly useful, amassing only 125 followers (and excellent graphic design). However, the Setade Ma Facebook group proved key. After the election it was transformed into the largest “where is my vote?” Facebook group and was used to organize the London, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC protest on June 14th.
The Facebook group organized by the Sedate Ma activists ended up being only one of the many Facebook groups
(see right) created using the “where is my vote” (WiMV) meme and logo. There are dynamics of both centralization and decentralization at work here. There are 24 WiMV groups on Facebook and the Sedate Ma group is by far the largest with 3,000 members at this time. The other groups are smaller, with a few hundred to less than 10 members. This is not necessarily a weakness. Facebook allows groups to only message 5,000 members at a time, so Facebook groups can only be used for effective communication at low volume.
Some organizers, who may or may not be associated with Setade Ma, created a stand-alone web site, whereismyvote.org, to direct potential supporters to Facebook groups organizing protests in Toronto, Vancouver, Paris, Boston, and Winnipeg. It is generally a good idea to create a stand-along site to mirror and centralize information on the frustratingly decentralized Facebook (as recommended in DigiActive’s Facebook Guide). However, only three of the five links point to the pages indicated. In the flurry of event creation, centralized control seemed to have been difficult.
Another interesting Facebook action was the campaign to change your profile picture to the green WiMV icon (also at right). This meme appears to have been started by a smaller WiMV Facebook group and the profile action seems to have been that group’s main purpose. The only information in the description section of the group is “If you voted for Mousavi change your profile picture to / WHERE IS MY VOTE? image / Join this group and invite your friends to do the same. lets make facebook green”. (Green is the symbolic color of Islam and Iran.) Changing profile pictures really leverages the network effects of Facebook. When one person changes their profile image that change is pushed out to all that person’s friends via the friend feed. Ideally, the following exchanges occur:
Finally, the organizers attempted to promote their events through citizen media sites, which have a wider audience than a Facebook group but are more accessible to activists than the mainstream media. For example, A supporter posted a photo and links about the San Francisco protest on the site Now Public, which collects and distributes news from unconventional sources by letting citizen journalists upload their own stories.
Outcome: Based on the photos and video uploaded by WiMV supporters, it appears that international protests on June 14th occurred in San Francisco (USA), London (UK) , Dallas (USA), Paris (France), Dubai (UAE), Melbourne (Australia), Köln (Germany), Atlanta (USA), Washington DC (USA), Los Angeles (USA), Winnipeg (Canada), Boston (USA), and Toronto (Canada). At somes protests dozens were present, at others over 100. (You can see a selection of images from the protests after the jump.)
It was certainly a successful example of fast, free, international collective action. The question is, where will the movement go r from here and will it be able to transform current enthusiasm and ad hoc organizing into an organizational structure with the stamina to continue a longer campaign?
Analysis: The WiMV campaign followed a decentralized structure that is common to digital activism campaigns built around high-profile issues. However, was this decentralization a good thing for the cause? On the positive side, it is likely that more events were organized because people who became aware of the WiMV/June 14th meme could create their own Facebook page to organize an event in their area and invite their friends and contacts. This seems to be the case with the WiMV Melbourne, Dubai, and Atlanta groups. (Other local pages were created but they did not seems to organize protests.) In another benefit of localization, the very active Paris group created their own profile icon in French: “ou est leur vote?” (where is their vote?) and their own Blogspot blog, which acted as a stand-alone site to centralize information about their protest.
Unfortunately, the negatives of decentralization seem to be more substantial than the positives. The first reason is misinformation. While the “official” DC protest was meant to take place at the Iranian Interests Section, someone posted on the wall of another group that the DC protest should be on the lawn of the White House. Second, many of the groups were “identity” groups rather than “action” groups. People joined them to identify with the cause of free and fair elections in Iran, but no protests were organized within those groups. People who potentially could have been recruited to attend a protest fell into the “dead zone” of inactive group.
The most serious concern with regard to decentralization is its implications for sustainability. Supporters are spread across a miriad number of event groups on Facebook, which was effective enough for this first action, but how will these supporters be contacted for future actions that are not organized at the local level? (Also, what about people who attended the protests but are not members of the Facebook group? Was their contact info collected?)
For true coordination beyond a high-attention meme, centralization is necessary and WiMV’s current structure on Facebook does not lend itself the the sustainable community which is most likely to lead to future collaboration and action. After the the explosion of activity for June 14th, people interested in continued action will need to come together into a single leadership team and then start reaching out to the group founders in an effort to get everyone on the same listserv and in the same group. It will not be a fun or easy process but it will be necessary to create a sustainabile community for this issue.