Iran and the Death of Mass Media

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The wording of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speech last Friday was so earnest that I almost believed it myself. He really believed that the election was a divine assessment. He also believed that he could blame the recent troubles on Iran’s enemies, who were all living a higher standard of living despite never having heard of such things as a secret morality police. From the hard-liner’s perspective, the regime still seems to be doing all the right things. They are manufacturing reports on state television, throwing out dissenting foreign journalists, confiscating cameras, and applying truncheons to anyone who gets in their way. The methods may seem harsh, but it’s all in a day’s work for defending the Islamic Republic. The only problem is that they are trying to fight an information war in 2009 with techniques that belong in 1979.

Back when the Islamic Revolution was young, print was still the primary source of information. Radio and Television were transmitted through massive antennae using machinery that would fill a small room. Media was still thought of as infrastructure back then. If you had control of it, legitimacy came by default. Today, that sort of centralization of media power doesn’t exist. Your average Best Buy has at least enough media creation equipment to start a revolution. All it took was the video from a single camcorder to set an entire city on fire in the 1992 LA riots. The Iranian Revolutionary regime now faces devices 1/10th the size, with 1000 times the storage capacity, and the ability to connect to a global network that not even President Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions could threaten.

Iran Expert Afshin Molavi claims that if Khamenei were to call for another election, it would be an extreme blow to the regime’s credibility. In my opinion, all hope of the regime’s credibility was dashed in Friday’s speech. He didn’t realize that he had brought a knife to a gun convention. In days passed, his was the only channel on TV. Now he is but a single voice among millions. One of the great myths of the 20th century was that if the footage going through the camera or the sound coming through the microphone didn’t lie, then anyone that had such equipment wouldn’t lie either. Even if the imagery was obviously false, individuals couldn’t come up with something vivid enough to compete with the propaganda. When that kind of power is the hands of all instead of the hands of the few, we begin to see that reality is once again decided by the agreement of people, not by an appeal to any authority, divine or otherwise. So now, along with the Divine Right of Kings before it, the myth of ultimate truth through mass media has been dashed, hopefully forever.

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