Feb. 13, 2019

Small acts of defiance on social media help bring change to the Middle East

UCalgary scholar Mohammad Keyhani speaks at Silicon Valley meeting of influential policy leaders
Mohammad Keyhani, associate professor at the University of Calgary, and his wife, instructor Safaneh Neyshabouri, pulled together a presentation highlighting how the internet can be an important tool for democracy, particularly in the Middle East.

Keyhani and his wife Neyshabouri designed a course on the internet as a tool for democracy.

Haskayne School of Business

Mohammad Keyhani has a habit of saying “yes” and it has led to some tremendous developments in his academic career.

Most recently, a chain of opportunities led Dr. Keyhani, PhD, associate professor in the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, to deliver a presentation at a regional meeting for the Trilateral Commission in Silicon Valley.

Seeing opportunity and grabbing it

Keyhani was selected in 2016 as one of the Canadian David Rockefeller Fellows, young leaders under the age of 35 who are invited to meetings of the commission. “With this fellowship, I am given access to people who I would never be able to connect to professionally,” he said of the meetings that attract those who have held the titles of national security director and foreign affairs minister.

The regional meeting in Silicon Valley was different from most of the Trilateral Commission meetings that focus on international geopolitics and economics. This time the theme was technology. A last-minute spot opened up in the lineup of speakers, and Keyhani volunteered for the chance not often offered to young fellows.

Internet and democracy in the Middle East

Keyhani saw himself, as an Iranian-Canadian, uniquely positioned to present a voice often not heard at the commission, as the Middle East, Africa, and China are not included. He and his wife Safaneh Neyshabouri, an instructor at UCalgary who teaches a popular Islam and Feminism class, pulled together a presentation highlighting how the internet can be an important tool for democracy, particularly in the Middle East.

Keyhani and Neyshabouri selected some videos of hard resistance: Arab spring protesters, Tahrir square in 2011, and a video that played an important role in the Libya uprising. The internet was a player in bringing people together in the streets and at times toppling governments. Other times however, outright confrontation is too costly and social media can itself become a tool of oppression.

In these dangerous times, people tone down their resistance to survive. It becomes subtle, indirect, unco-ordinated, invisible and hidden in everyday life. But it is still powerful. Like the message that Iranian actress, Taraneh Alidoosti, sends with her casually draped hijab in an Instagram photo that reaches over five million subscribers. There are also those not in the limelight who post videos of small acts of defiance: young women shuffle dancingpracticing parkour, singing or freestyling with a soccer ball.

“Laws aren’t changing but change is happening rapidly,” says Neyshabouri of the everyday forms of resistance in Iran that are enabled by social media. “People are living life ‘as if’ — ‘as if’ these laws don’t exist.”

There are also dangers to democracy posed by social media. The technology has been co-opted by those in power, sometimes to influence opinion and other times to track dissidents. Maedeh Hojabri, a young female Iranian Instagrammer, was arrested for posting videos of herself dancing on Instagram. This arrest may have not had the impact the regime intended; upon her release, her new Instagram account has gained over 726,000 followers, even more than before her arrest. In the long run, soft resistance is very effective because it is hard to suppress.

To this audience who were focused on technology, Keyhani highlighted, “Sometimes a tech leader in Silicon Valley decides that an app or platform is no longer profitable and it gets cut. It can have dire consequences for the digital heritage of millions of people in the Middle East,” he said. “Human culture is recorded in these products and this historical record needs to be protected.”

Neyshabouri is scheduled to present a version of the talk as part of the awards ceremony for the Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly essay contest at the University of Calgary on March 1, 2019.