A sense of euphoria and unprecedented freedom dominated national politics during the presidential campaigns in Iran in the spring of 2009. In the course of the thirty-year history of the theocratic state, no one could remember another time when Iranian state television had broadcast such lively debates among the presidential candidates. Leaving a rally for the sitting president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Time magazine correspondent Joe Klein described a crowd of tens of thousands: “They began to filter in to downtown,” he recalled. The Ahmadinejad rally was ending around the time that the reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s rally too was finishing up. Mousavi’s supporters made their way downtown, flooding the streets and squares. The scene, as Klein recalled it with obvious awe, was one of camaraderie, of playfulness. Describing the intermingling of the two camps, Klein observed, “they were just kind of joking with each other. It seemed as if someone had opened a magic door and an entire country had spilled out.” There was this sense of electricity and excitement. In these days of anticipation leading to the presidential election, people danced in the streets, women and men played around with their outfits, piling up headgear, tying things here and there. Public space felt celebratory and alive and the air was spiked with a flavor of exhilaration. Things were about to change.
This wasn’t just a feeling. Things looked lively too. Color was everywhere. Election activities were color coded. Campaign paraphernalia, campaign headquarters, and campaigners themselves were clearly differentiated using predesigned graphic coding based on the colors of the candidate’s campaign. The incumbent president’s supporters used the Iranian flag as their symbol. From the headquarters of Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, campaigners handed out flyers and posters that were washed in the color green.1 Voters spoke of Tehran in campaign colors, even as ranking members of the Revolutionary Guard cautioned against rogue groups creating “a colorful” “velvet revolution.”2
It was during one of the presidential debates that the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi had put on a green shawl. The tint of the shawl, an iridescent green, the color assigned to the family of the Prophet, highlighted Mousavi’s status as a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and emphasized his position as the candidate who promised to bring the nation back to the basics, that is, to the original principles of the state as established by the venerated leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the 1978 Revolution and, too, back to the traditions of radical kinship founded on Shi’ism’s ties to the family of the Prophet through the Twelve Imams.3
On June 12, 2009, Iranians went to the polls to elect a new president. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected as the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran with 63% of the votes cast. Millions believe that their vote was never counted. Final numbers had been announced before the polls were even closed. Thus, a month after Mousavi’s appearance on state television, that is, on the days following the election, an all-embracing movement donning green armbands, finger-bands, and headbands took to the streets to call Ahmadinejad’s victory a fraud. The color green became the symbol of the opposition.
Images of masses of people filling the vast boulevards, squares, and bridges of the Iranian cityscape were posted to Twitter and Facebook within minutes. Digital images framed groups of men and women donned in green and black, in headgear or scarves, with one simple question printed by hand on a single sheet of paper: “Where is my Vote?”
Eyewitnesses uploaded videos to YouTube showing a moving sea of millions. They were posted with singular descriptors—“Today” or a mere date—as if the fog of what had just taken place had in some gesture of synesthesia also robbed people of their voice. But the “silent” hum of the crowds in the videos themselves—a hum akin to what you hear in crowded spaces, say, in the bazaar, or a Tehran café—was a hum of intimacy: a refusal to speak to a state that could not be recognized as one’s own, a refusal to submit to injustice, a refusal to participate in the co-optation of those whispered words by intruders and opportunists. In this quiet intimacy, future marches were planned and shared: “Tomorrow, there.”4
Digital images framed older women in a posture of prostration at the feet of the police or holding signs that faced away from the camera. These too spoke of a refusal to relate to the state. Who stood there right next to you was who mattered. Hundreds of such images circulated from within the crowds. Protestors were alternately holding hands and flashing victory signs. Close-ups of men and women, people of different generations and backgrounds, next to each other, marching behind one another: the urgency with which the images were uploaded, shared, studied, commented on, and retweeted established a sense of simultaneity and solidarity. The opposition movement was lovingly embraced online as the “Sea of Green,” the “Green Movement,” or the “Green Wave.” Twitter was awash and enfolded in green.
In these moments of deafening silence from the ground, netizens loudly cautioned against violence, tweeting and posting quotes by the Persian poet Sa’di, by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and by the American author Henry David Thoreau, well known for his essay on civil disobedience.
The silence of the street protestors was broken as the violence of the regime became palpable. A twenty-six-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was brutally shot and murdered by the state paramilitary basij in Tehran on June 20, 2009, a week after the election. She was not the first martyr of the 2009 uprising.5 But Neda’s death stood out. It had all the imprints of martyrdom, of a corporal act of witnessing, of sacrifice to the secular mind. Her death in the midst of a small group of protestors and friends was captured on a handheld device and immediately uploaded. The digital video documenting Neda’s death circulated first on Facebook, then on Twitter. She was described in lengthy comments that accompanied the video as an innocent bystander who curiously led her music teacher into a crowd of peaceful protestors. This textual anchoring of the video created an aura of angelic innocence around her. An injustice had been done. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the video online and reposted it. The video of a young Iranian woman’s agonizing death went viral in a matter of hours. Her name, “Neda” (“voice” or “calling” in Persian), became the rallying cry for the Iranian opposition.
Images of the spectacular crowds in green and the viral video of the murdered Neda Agha-Soltan galvanized people of all backgrounds and ages. On Twitter these images linked to and circulated with the hashtags #SeaofGreen, #SoG, #GR88, #Neda, #FreeIran, and #iranelection. Facebook friends created photosets, and personal Flickr accounts were used to archive images that were being posted by way of TwitPic and yfrog onto Twitter’s early textual platform6—images of the wounded, of women creating barricades, of protestors being assaulted on a street corner, of men carrying rocks, of rows of riot police lining the street, of protective fires large and small, of the basij (the state militia) holding cameras and handheld weapons on motorcycles approaching a scattering crowd, of circulating currency stamped in green ink, of an older man being cornered in a doorway by members of the Revolutionary Guard, of a woman wrapped in a black chador attempting to rescue someone from being beaten by three basijis, of a young man tying a green finger-band on his female friend’s finger, of one hand clasping another in a gesture of kinship.
Images and videos also circulated of protestors rescuing members of the Iranian security forces, those fallen on duty or injured in the midst of the moving crowds. Shielding the riot police from the pressure of the mass, the protestors protectively moved the police off urban boulevards, tended their wounds, and gave them water to drink. Favorited and Liked and in some instances allegorized, these digital documents of solidarity were vigorously downloaded, reposted, and retweeted.
Around the world thousands of “tweeps”—a portmanteau of “Twitter peeps,” as the intimate group of early adopters called one another—placed a green overlay on their avatars and changed their time and geolocation to Tehran to stand as alibis in solidarity with those actually tweeting from Iran. They rapidly worked to locate safe houses on Google Maps as news emerged that wounded protestors were being arrested immediately upon their arrival at hospitals. The Australian, Dutch, Mexican, Norwegian, British, German, Belgian, Slovenian, and Portuguese embassies opened their doors to the wounded until there too the assumed protestors were arrested at the gates. Netizens with technical know-how also supported Tor and the newly established NedaNet to secure proxies as news arrived that Iranians were being blocked from the internet and that those with high phone usage (indicating high internet usage) were being identified and arrested.
Posted as status updates and tweets, some of the latest slogans were accompanied with commentaries and translations, others, with peals of laughter. A simple printed sheet of paper: “Look how loud are howls of silence.” Graffiti on a city wall: “Down with the dictator.” And recalling the first wave of arrests at Tehran University, the day after the presidential election: “Evin prison: Now admitting students.”7
It was clear from the difference in the frequency of updates only ten days after the election that netizens were glued to their digital screens. American high school students were talking about “Going Iranian” against authority figures.8 And Western journalists who had been forced to leave Iran during the early days of protest felt bereft and wrote about “the responsibility of bearing witness.”9 Hundreds of songs dedicated to Neda in English and in Persian were uploaded to YouTube and circulated on Twitter and Facebook. Photosets from the early days of the protests were put to 1960s protest songs, and to revolutionary chants borrowed from other parts of the world, many of them revibed by the Iranian student movement.10 It was indeed a moment when, in the prescient words of W. B. Yeats, “the world bore witness.”11 There was a burst of emotional connectivity, of creativity, of collaboration and exchange in response to Neda’s death. Her name became a search topic and a hashtag on Twitter, #Neda. It was the highest-ranking hashtag on June 20, 2009, indicating tens of thousands of posts on the day of her death.
With more than ten thousand #iranelection tweets an hour throughout the month of June, the involvement of netizens in the crisis in Iran was so widespread that the hashtag #iranelection remained the highest-ranking global hashtag on Twitter for two weeks following the presidential election, dropping only momentarily after the unexpected death of Michael Jackson. His death created the largest spike of text message traffic in history, 60% above the average according to AT&T, who reported four million text messages a minute.12 On Twitter, #MJ overwhelmed every feed. It was inevitable, though, given a whole generation’s absolute devotion to Michael Jackson in defiance of the Iranian morality police, that the mashups that were created of this moment of confluence would be not only appropriate but humorous and plentiful. Of the most reposted #MJ #iranelection videos that were made on the occasion of Michael Jackson’s sudden death, his “Beat It,” to the image of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and a collage video of the protests on the ground to “They Don’t Really Care about Us” were the most popular.13 The hashtag #iranelection surged again and trended on the thirtieth anniversary of the hostage crisis, on November 4, 2009, and on the thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic Republic, on February 11, 2010, as protests continued on the ground.
The music of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It!” accompanies an image of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Still from a YouTube video created by YouTube user mydorood. (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxIYc9dXT7o)
Urgent, unjust, and lengthy, the Iranian postelection crisis galvanized and transformed the ecology of life online such that the tropes of #iranelection, its aggregation of an international mass movement around a uniform global hashtag, its valuation of standing “friend/follower” networks and citizen reporting, its engagement with avatar activism, its relentless and conscientious circulation of digital images, its immediate retweeting of the most recent YouTube videos, its hacks, memes, and viral transmissions, its mass participation in flash mobs and text-the-regime campaigns, became part of a sensing, breathing, collective body, part flesh, part data, connected across the globe by way of a continual exchange of digital sights and sounds on social media.
1. Hiedeh Farmani, “Iranians Queue from Dawn to Have Their Say in Key Poll.” Petroleumworld. June 12, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.petroleumworld.com/storyt09061202.htm.
2. “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Warn against ‘Velvet Revolution.’” Democracy Digest. June 11, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://bit.ly/1b503Up.
3. Mir-Hossein Mousavi was the Prime Minster of the Islamic Republic of Iran, from 1981 to 1989.
4. On the ground, the first days of the protests happened more or less in an anticipatory silence. See “Tehran in a Meaningful Silence.” Tehran Avenue. June 17, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://tehranavenue.com/tooons.php?tooonsid=36. “Iran Elections: Mousavi Supporters Protest.” The Telegraph, June 17, 2009. Accessed April 26, 2015. http://bit.ly/1KlMDAf; “2009 Iranian Revolution—Silent Protest on June 17.” YouTube. June 17, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2015. https://youtu.be/99lAhR6ZLuE.
5. By June 22, hospital sources confirmed that thousands had been injured and forty-seven killed by government forces in Tehran alone.
6. Twitter was three years into its launch (2006). Few remember this, but in 2009 Twitter was still a very basic text-based, 140 characters per tweet, medium. The hyperlinked hashtag in tweets became part of the platform later in the summer of 2009. TwitPic, yfrog, and Flickr were Twitter’s primary photosharing sites before image-attachments became native to Twitter’s microblogging platform.
7. “Translation of Iran Slogans and Signs-2.” CNN iReport. June 24, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://cnn.it/1zbrHem.
8. “[Today the Word ‘Iran’ Is Synonymous with Righteousness and Resistance against Oppression].” CNN iReport. July 21, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://cnn.it/1JJlmXf. See also Kathy Riordan, “How Twitter and #Iranelection Changed Each Other.” Open Salon. June 8, 2010. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://bit.ly/1zuyzDA.
9. Roger Cohen, “A Journalist’s ‘Actual Responsibility.’” New York Times. July 6, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://nyti.ms/1KypG0z.
10. The creative efforts that came in response to the viral video of Neda’s death varied from the adaptation of the Italian antifascist song “Bella Ciao” (“Bella Ciao, Iran.” YouTube. July 28, 2009. Accessed April 26, 2015. https://youtu.be/SNocyz1NRjA.
. . . to Siavash’s dedication, “Neda,” with accompanying scrapbook images from Neda’s life. (“Siavash Official video: NEDA.” YouTube. June 27, 2009. Accessed April 25, 2015. http://bit.ly/1buTqLR.
. . . and “I Can’t Breathe (Neda) Rerecords” by Bruz (ft. Tiatsh & Jaz).” YouTube. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://youtu.be/Ya9mD1XP3vU.
. . . and the Abjeez and Congo Man Crew’s Biyaa (“Biyaa by Abjeez & Congo Man Crew.” YouTube. June 20, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://youtu.be/pdyXklHL6PE.
. . . and to Safoura Ahmadi’s “Silent Volcano,” which associates the story of the death of Iranian youth with the mass explosion of a volcano, a volcano that is the people onto the streets and boulevards in protest (“Silent Volcano - Iran Uprising.” YouTube. September 16, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://youtu.be/nwqdwI20zsM).
The latter, incidentally, is a cover of Carlos Puebla’s “Hasta Siempre.” These are only a handful of examples from a plethora of creative works made in a multiplicity of languages to honor the #iranelection protestors in response to Neda’s death.
11. “Let the Earth Bear Witness (Farsi Subtitles).” YouTube. July 2, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://youtu.be/V4Qwlk2cbq4.
12. “Michael Jackson’s Death Causes Enormous Spike in AT&T Traffic.” Thaindian News. Accessed April 26, 2015. http://bit.ly/1DOuqWv.
13. “Iran Election Video With Michael Jackson.” YouTube. June 24, 2009. Accessed April 26, 2015. http://bit.ly/1PIN8Hl; “Beat It You Fanatics! Just Beat It!!!” YouTube. July 7, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://bit.ly/1PMTWnB; “Iran & Michael Jackson (Man In The Mirror)”. YouTube. June 26, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://bit.ly/1FrS14T; “Michael Jackson, Basij Brutality and #iranelection” Wet Tub. July 14, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2015. http://bit.ly/1bwF8tX; “Protests in Iran-They Don’t Care About Us (Michael Jackson).” http://bit.ly/1OYWyfR. “Twitter Reveals Most Discussed Topics of 2009.” Mashable. December 15, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://on.mash.to/1zP6kj7.