A number of people have recently been asking me how much of what goes on in the outside is seen inside Iran. If you have not heard from me directly, please consider this post as your reply. This is a difficult question but I will attempt to answer it as best I can: we see everything. Well, probably a little less, as not everything is seen of everything that goes on everywhere, from anywhere. But we get a lot of it anyway.
Inherently this leads us to the question of how well this information is disseminated inside Iran. If we consider the entire spectrum of Iranian society, including English speakers with an internet connection all the way to the old farmer without even a newsstand, we should see how difficult it is to assess this. Further complications arise when you consider the range of internet users – a good 20 million according to some estimates – that lie between “monster surfers” and the “casually excited about non-physical postal service”. But I should answer your question.
In this post, please consider “we” and “everyone” as those inside my little bubble, which overlaps some other bubbles, hopefully overlapping others. So take it with a grain of salt, but here’s how the story goes:
News from the outside reaches us mainly through television networks, such as BBC Persian and VOAPNN, and the internet. We receive the TV broadcasts over satellite dishes, and it is safe to say that most rooftops in Tehran are equipped with those. As you travel outside Tehran, reaching smaller and more remote towns, the numbers diminish but the dishes are still there. Although BBC Persian is a relatively new service, it seems like it is gobbling up the VOA audience because of superior programming and better news coverage. Once in a while the government sends out jamming signals which means we have to call the satellite guy to come and readjust the dish, punch in some new codes in our receivers, and we’re back in business.
Then there is the internet. Big media is present on the internet too, obviously, and we do visit them to check on big news that makes it to them. We are also aware of their failures to catch the smaller stuff, or fall into traps diverting them from what we consider important. But for getting the colorful tones and finer shades, proper analysis and commentary, we crawl other corners of the net.
We see your tweets, pics, posts, leaks, walls, rumors, articles, flames, trolls, messages of support, slogans, comments, funnies, videos, and everything else you produce. Let us take Twitter which is actually an important source for us, especially for breaking news even if it is happening in Iran. Case in point: this week’s student protests. For those who do not have accounts, there are websites that broadcast the public tweets from any hashtag. Surprisingly some of these sites are not yet filtered. In cases where filtering is in place, we use proxies to get to this information. Also, there are RSS feed readers that we can use to get to your messages through web-based mail services and thus bypassing the filters in a different way. There is no way to block us in, other than cutting the internet altogether, and the government cannot do that easily as some of the crucial internal communications, such as banking, depend on it. If they ever decide to do this, it will take a campaign of outlawing and phasing out residential connections. Even in this case we still have internet at work, and in the end, long-distance dial-up. If I have to pay a $200 phone bill per month to read what you write, so be it.
So, how does a minority crawling the nooks and crannies of the internet, let a majority know about it? Information gathered from websites is first disseminated through chat and email, and then word-of-mouth does what it does best. In the past three months, conversations at every dinner party in every household I have been to, has revolved around politics and the current situation. My cab rides and visits to grocers are laced with current news and politics. As long as current events are on everyone’s minds, news circulates very efficiently.
Other than word-of-mouth, information is transformed into a physical format and distributed through the Iranian sneakernet. Most likely, not many people go through the hassle of doing this, but some are. For instance, I know of some young people who print important pieces of news, burn pictures and videos on CDs viewable on regular CD players, and take them to their families outside Tehran when they go for a visit on weekends. It is important to disarm the regime in its effort to mask reality.
As a recent example, we saw, heard and read about how accommodating New York City was to Ahmadinejad during his trip and how comfortable he was there. While I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all involved, I wish you would keep him there as we have no further use for him here. He seemed happy too, giving hollow speeches in hollow halls.
Since we are talking about Twitter, you probably know that we have a similar service here in Iran. I’ve talked about it before. Although it was originally used for writing slogans and reminding the coup regime that we are still around, recently some have started to turn it into a delivery system for the news. I’ve also seen green poetry written on a few. We have to limit text to a few characters while conveying the essence of the news to our readers. It’s cheap, readily available and very efficient. The only issue is we do not identify ourselves on the tweet, and there’s no guarantee users will print confirmed news only. But who cares? This is an information war. So this:
Will soon contain information about the IRGC’s recent purchase of TCI and broadcast into other people’s wallets.
Inevitably, some people still remain in the dark, but I can say that I have been surprised many times when talking to people in random encounters, not just in Tehran but in remote places too, about their awareness of events inside Iran, and those of outside. I have also met many who ask what the outside world thinks of us, and I find myself only relaying positive and supportive stories. As much as you are curious about what we do, we are about you. Support has been immense and surprising to many. Watching the face of a gardener glow, when looking at pictures of the Swedish police wearing the Iranian flag on their wrists, is priceless.