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The Islamic Republic’s own rampant censorship is breaking its media hold on the Iranian people

On March 6, the hashtag #NoToTheIslamicRepublic and its Persian equivalent started to pop up on the web and within five days it was trending on Twitter and Instagram. By March 16, the hashtag had been used—in either English or Persian—over two million times.

As the campaign was taking off on social media, it became the subject of many news reports from outside the Islamic Republic, with outlets such as the BBC, DW News, and Radio Farda dedicating valuable digital real estate to the movement.

By contrast, the last time the phrase “No to the Islamic Republic” appeared in a publication sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was five years ago, when Abdollah Ganji, editor in chief of the IRGC-affiliated Javan newspaper, used it in an editorial that was carried by a number of other outlets. The editorial, of course, made only a fleeting reference to the phrase, painting it as a false conclusion drawn by “some” who “interpreted the whole [1997 presidential] election in Iran as a vote of no to the Islamic Republic.”

To put this in perspective, social scientists have found that trending topics in the United States typically become subjects of extensive news coverage in traditional media outlets. For example, on March 6, when #NoToTheIslamicRepublic first surfaced, the trending topic in the United States was #SuperStraight, a hashtag designed to mock the LGBTQ community. This topic would become the subject of more than 51,000 news articles. On March 11, conservative TV host Tucker Carlson was trending for remarks he made on Fox News about the US military, a topic that received widespread coverage in other media outlets. On March 16, #UnBanNairo—a movement in support of a gamer who was banned from the game-streaming service Twitch—was trending, with close to 4,500 news articles covering it.

It may not come as a surprise that negative sentiments about the Islamic regime of Iran are not expressed in Iranian media, which operate under the regime’s strict control. However, this issue goes beyond mere sentiments, political affiliations, and how an issue is framed. More often than not, the most important issues in the eyes of the Iranian public are not even mentioned in Iranian media, as opposed to other countries like the United States, where issues that appeal to the public receive media coverage even if they are covered from a variety of angles.

For example, the vast majority of people who participated in the #SuperStraight conversation on social media expressed their disapproval of recognition of alternative gender and sexual identities. At the same time, however, an even greater majority of the media coverage of the hashtag portrayed it as “transphobic,” “promoting hate,” and “anti-LGBTQ.”

So while the mainstream media’s stance on the issue is the polar opposite of those who started the movement, at the very least, both parties talk about the same issue. In other words, they both agree that the issue on people’s minds (i.e., gender identity) needs to be addressed.

This basic agreement on what issues to discuss, according to social scientists Maxwell McCombs of the University of Texas and Donald Shaw of the University of North Carolina, is the cornerstone of a civic society. This agreement allows members of society and the ruling elite to identify the important issues of the day. American political scientist John W. Kingdon, of the University of Michigan, has dubbed this the “problem stream,” the first stage in progress toward policymaking and political change.

In most countries with relative press freedom, the media identify these issues or problems for the public. Social scientists call this phenomenon the media’s “agenda-setting” function. The idea behind agenda setting is that when people read or hear about certain issues over and over again, those issues become salient to them—even though they may not be immediately relevant to their personal experiences.

For over 50 years, social scientists have been able to find support for the agenda-setting function of the media through hundreds of studies. These studies typically involve a systematic content analysis of news media and public opinion surveys. Researchers compare the issues mentioned in the news with the issues that the masses have identified as important to find trends and correlations.

However, with the proliferation of social media and the relatively low cost of disseminating information, people have realized that they can be the publishers of information as well as its consumers. Thus, they write about the issues they care about most on social media rather than the issues that the media talk about most.

This phenomenon initially led many social scientists to predict the demise of the media’s ability to set the agenda for the public. However, study after study (conducted in the United States, the UK, Spain, and Germany) has found that the media retain agenda-setting power, albeit slightly weakened.

Certain countries, including Iran, defy this norm. A study published in Agendamelding: News, Social Media, Audiences, and Civic Community (2019) found that the correlation between the issues discussed in the Iranian media and the issues that the Iranian people cited as important was a meager .28—where zero would mean no correlation at all and 1.00 would mean complete correlation (the same work, by comparison, reported a correlation of .95 in the United States.)

The study, however, found a strong correlation of .83 between Iranian public opinion and Persian Twitter and strong correlations of .72 and .87 between Iranian public opinion and two Persian-language media outlets outside Iran, the independent Meli Mazhabi and Radio Farda, a division of the US’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It is worth reiterating that the study did not look at how issues were framed but whether the issues were mentioned at all.

In a different study, the authors of Agendamelding compared the agenda-setting power of the media in different countries with the Freedom in the World (FIW) index, published annually by Freedom House, and found that press freedom tends to go hand in hand with the ability of the media to set the agenda for the public.

The takeaway from these studies and the anecdotal evidence presented earlier is that the restrictions that the Islamic Republic has imposed on the press in Iran are not only creating a deep disconnect between the people and the Iranian media, but also stifling the media’s once-powerful agenda-setting ability. If the media do not address the issues that people find important, people will in turn not regard the issues advanced in the media as important.

This is why the sort of flood of headlines and other targeted media messaging that would once have mobilized the entire nation no longer have any perceivable effect on the Iranian public.

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