Duke University professor and social media expert Negar Mottahedeh started using Facebook to appease her mother. Little did she know, she’d be using the website to find safe havens for victims of violence in the Iranian election protest last summer.
Originally from Iran, most of Mottahedeh’s family managed to leave the country before the revolution in 1979, and since then, they’ve spread all over the world, from Norway to Kenya to Chile.
“I originally saw it as a way to unite the family and organized get togethers,” she said.
But she quickly recognized that social media could be used in even more powerful ways. In her work as an educator, she had her film students blog responses to movies, post comments on their readings and tweet their work to the “outside world.”
“Most Duke students come from a place of privilege,” Mottahedeh said. “Many already know a great deal, and they are there to get evidence for the fact that they know a great deal.”
With that in mind, her Introduction to Film Studies class organized the first-ever Twitter Film Festival to share their knowledge with the public. The class made segments and analysis from 35 of their favorite films public on the class blog, tweeting links to each and attracting more than 300 followers from all walks of life.
“Within the field of academics, I think [social media] will change the way we do research and the way we think about writing,” Mottahedeh said. “I think it will connect us as academics and help us stick alongside people who are not in academics.”
It wasn’t until last summer, though, that she and thousands of others watched as Twitter, Facebook and Google Maps were used to spread a global message in the Iranian presidential elections. As the incumbent regime suppressed protests on the ground, hundreds of thousands were tweeting their support or opposition.
Though Mottahedeh said she did not want to take sides in the political activism because it did not directly affect her, she became concerned by reports that the military police were taking the wounded to prison instead of hospitals.
“I joined the humanitarian effort to identify on Google Maps safe havens, directions and address for the injured to receive treatment,” she said.
In an effort to conceal their whereabouts, thousands of people tweeting from the ground changed their time zones, so only early followers like Mottahedeh knew where the information was coming from. She served as an active observer, posting her take on the use of social media in the crisis on her blog, The Negarponti Files.
Mottahedeh watched with the rest of the world as Iranian activists showed their support in unprecedented ways. In the past, protestors had worked to conceal their identities, but a new movement emerged in which tweeters showed their support by adding a green overlay to their avatars, with their faces turned straight to the camera.
Perhaps the most surprising movement came after a student was arrested for speaking about reform and human rights. The government-owned newspaper published photos of him wearing a woman’s veil, saying that he’d donned women’s clothing to escape persecution. Rumors to the contrary said the government forced him to wear the veil in an attempt to demean him.
In response, thousands of Iranian men changed their avatars to straight-on photos in women’s clothing. And it didn’t just stay online. All over the world, cross-dressed men gathered in person in demonstration of their support.
It was a statement saying, ‘I stand here in opposition to government. I stand against violations in human rights,’” Mottahedeh said. “I doubt that this kind of protest would be possible without social media.”
Mottahedeh will speak more about her observations and insights during the Future of Learning panel at FutureWeb Friday April 30.
By Rachel Cieri