“I am a nut for our constitution that starts with ‘We the people,’ not ‘I the Ayatollah’.” – Ali Reza Manouchehri, creator of Iran Voices
Iran Voices, powered by Zoomph, is seeking to amplify democratic discourse that broaches the economic, cultural, and political tumult within Iranian society. The primary intent of the effort is to provide the world with greater insight into accurate and unfettered social interactions regarding Iran’s upcoming election as well as the leading contenders for the Presidency. Manouchehri is no stranger to the realities of living life under the oppressive Iranian regime. His family fled to America three years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, but he returned to attend Tatbighi High School in Tehran.
“It was great because in the early 90’s teens like us stood out in the crowd, and at times we were celebrities, sharing stories of America and other times we were targets of the Basij and Komiteh,” Manouchehri reminisced. The Basij and Komiteh are quasi-paramilitary militias and volunteer plain clothed security services that serve as the eyes and ears of the Iranian regime. Recalling one particular run-in Manouchehri had with Iranian authorities, “My second week in Tehran, I was playing basketball wearing Michael Jordan’s Dream Team jersey, #9. I guess being surrounded by visual graphics of ‘Down with USA’ and proudly wearing your USA jersey is not a good combination.”
“The Komiteh cornered me and asked if I was representing the public relations for America. Suddenly, I had my ‘oh shoot’ moment and put the basketball down and one of the Komiteh members read ‘Jordan’ on the back and asked if that was Michael Jordan. I realized at that moment the back of my jersey was going to get me out of this situation and with Michael on my side, I shared as many stories about the Dream Team as I could.” Later, Manouchehri’s game turned from basketball to entrepreneurship, leveraging technology to create innovative social engagement platforms. His firm first stepped into the social media fray to assist democratic activists during Iran’s 2009 elections to support citizen journalists and facilitate the spontaneous organization of communities through a Facebook application.
During this period of heightened social activism, and as a precursor event to the larger Arab Spring, the Iranian regime quickly realized that the information being distributed in the country and to the outside world through social media was out of their control. Efforts to censor information were implemented and social networking sites were cutoff, including Manouchehri’s Iran Voices application. What followed was, as Manouchehri describes, a “roller coaster ride,” a cat and mouse sort of chase, where the Iranian regime would block the application and repeatedly take it down, all the while he and his team found ways to circumvent the artificial obstructions.
Fast-forward to today and Manouchehri’s Iran Voices is at it again. Having learned a great deal from the 2009 experience and having collected and gleamed a tremendous amount of data on how individuals use technology on the ground, Iran Voices has reemerged to track the influence and units of attention of social media content around the election. “We are not trying to make this a political site. We are not trying to say which candidate you should vote for,” Manouchehri asserts. “We are telling the people, in the social commentary, here is how much content is being created, here is what your content is saying and how influential the Iranian election is at a global level.”
But it’s more than just a mashup of social media content. The site is beginning to see how the presidential candidates line up from an ideological, political, and policy standpoint. Additionally, the site data is also starting to reveal where and who the more liberal, reformist constituencies are coalescing support around, especially those elements within Iranian society that made up the Green Revolution, which protested the fraudulent 2009 election results that kept Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.
In some ways, the data gathered by Iran Voices can be seen as part real-time social media polling as well as a near real-time predicative marketplace for the upcoming elections. It will also serve as an early warning and detection method to identify censorship efforts and disruptive endeavors intending to prevent citizen access to regime-determined inappropriate internet content. Whether or not the Iranian regime will deem Iran Voices inappropriate again is yet to be seen, but with the election less than a week away, all eyes are on the Iranian people as they inch closer to making their choice, a choice between “We the people” or “I the Ayatollah.”
This article was originally posted in The Washington Times.