Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Quotable: Shaw, Terry, and Minooie on communication during the Iranian Revolution


Saturday, December 19th 2015
A recent article, “Military Communication Strategies Based on How Audiences Meld Media and Agendas” by Donald Shaw, Thomas C. Terry, and Milad Minooie in the November-December, 2015 issue of Military Review breaks into three parts.

It opened by describing “vertical media” (newspapers, magazines, radio, television), “horizontal” (internet-based) media and the concept of “agendamelding.”  The three authors usefully noted that “people who came of age before the Internet tend to prefer traditional, vertical media. In contrast, digital natives—people who grew up with computers and the Internet—are more likely to meld information sources without showing dominant vertical preferences.”

The second part used these concepts to provide a fresh look at the communication strategies of the Shah of Iran, the ayatollahs, and the Iranian revolution.  In the late 1970s, before the internet, it was the circulation of ideas on audiocassette tapes that was disruptive.  ". . . what happened in Iran could happen anywhere, when the influence of the media preferred by leaders declines, and the influence of the media preferred by audiences increases," the authors wrote.

The article closed with recommendations for Army leadership, proposing a timeline approach to combining vertical and horizontal media.  This gist provides bullet points from the second part of the article.

  • In the 1970s, the Iranian mass media—newspapers, magazines, radio, and television—were under the control of the monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, who used them to orchestrate development of the “great civilization” under the direction of government policy.

  • The shah’s great civilization policy—sometimes called the Westernization of Iran—was a series of reforms, initiated by his father Reza Shah Pahlavi, aimed at modernizing and secularizing the Iranian society.

  • To enforce social change, the shah attempted to use mass media—which he controlled—to stigmatize as backward the traditional values and ways of Iranian communities in contrast to the supposedly forward-looking and progressive values of the West.

  • One of the unintended effects was to create a sense of frustration and inferiority among many Iranian citizens, especially among the Iranian intelligentsia as well as the clerical class, which in turn created a wellspring of bitter resentment against both the shah and the West in general.

  • The lack of venues for public discourse led all sectors of Iranian society to seek alternatives. One consequence was that the mosques in every neighborhood became social platforms for exchanging ideas, somewhat similar to how social media connect people today.

  • The expanded significance of the mosque as a place of discourse, exchange of ideas, and debate enabled communities to set their own agendas horizontally, among friends, neighbors, relatives, and peers. Most often, these agendas ran counter to the top-down disseminated agenda of the shah.

  • The exiled dissident Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who later became the leader of the Iranian Revolution, used one of the new and most advanced transportable technologies available to the public at the time—audiocassette tapes—to disseminate his revolutionary messages among the increasingly discontented Persian population.

  • Most of Khomeini’s messages sent from exile (in Iraq from 1963 to 1978 and in France from 1978 to 1979) came recorded on audiocassette tapes smuggled into Iran and then reproduced or transcribed and copied for wide distribution through mosques and then to the universities.

  • In the winter of 1978, the shah ordered the editors of the major Iranian newspapers to publish editorials accusing the now-popular Khomeini of slander and of being a colonialist.

  • Instead of tarnishing Khomeini in the eyes of the public, these editorials had the opposite effect by burnishing his reputation and advancing his message, while angering the population and prompting a massive protest by theology students in the holy city of Qom on 9 January 1978, which was met by police brutality. At least six people were killed and forty-five injured.

  • In the meantime, Iranian journalists went on strike, demanding freedom of expression. The walkout shut down news production, leaving telephone service as a primary way to obtain news from outside Iran. Eventually, several foreign radio stations began to relay opposition messages into Iran. One popular radio station was the Persian Language British Broadcasting Corporation World Service (currently known as BBC Persian).

  • By 1979, the shah’s formerly dominant agenda had reached the nadir of its influence; it gave way to an alternative agenda, that of Khomeini. As the shah’s power declined, Khomeini’s rose.

  • In principle, what happened in Iran could happen anywhere, when the influence of the media preferred by leaders declines, and the influence of the media preferred by audiences increases. At the same time, leaders lose their influence partly because of their ineffective media strategies. New leaders who adapt to the media habits of their followers arise—and the cycle of change starts over.

  • Ironically, in more recent times, to attract military recruits, Iranian marines have recently sponsored and participated in a music video made by a once-underground musician. When asked what the rationale was for using formerly banned musicians as a recruitment tool, a high-ranking officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard said, “We have to learn to speak the language of youth and use their codes.”

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