The Iranian Opposition’s Second Life

Our piece on Iran's virtual protests kicked off Pixels and Policy, and in coordination with its syndication on Foreign Policy in Focus and Asia Chronicle, we're reposting it here.

Freeiran On July 22,
a week into Iran’s
foreign media reporting ban, a group of Iranian protesters gathered on a grassy
hill to speak out against Supreme Leader Khamenei’s continued support for
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran’s security forces, however,
were absent. In a nation with a frighteningly effective intelligence service,
Supreme Leader Khamenei was entirely unaware of this protest because it took place in Second Life.

Revolution's Beta Test

The virtual world is a growing environment for civic discussion and debate. One of the
most active Iranian protest and discussion spots was Club Habibi, described as a “Middle
Eastern Oasis” where avatars can purchase region-themed clothing and command
their characters to dance a virtual version of an Arab belly dance.

Some merely explore for a few
minutes and fly off, while others meet up with virtual friends from places as
far-flung as DamascusDenver.
Unsurprisingly, conversation often leads to Iran’s electoral problems, where
real-life Iranians can express themselves and carry their message beyond the
locked-down borders of Khamenei’s temporal dominion.

While places like Club Habibi
provide a free virtual forum for Iranians to spread their message, other Second
Life venues provide a more somber experience. Hundreds of Second Life players captured international
media attention
as early as June 25 after announcing plans for a “Virtual
Vigil” in memory of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters killed by Iranian security

Virtual Battle Stations 

The active
Iranian protest community in Second Life is more than a curiosity, and downplaying
the importance of virtual societies in our political and social lives, as TIME
Magazine did in August 2007, understates the power of synthetic worlds in
creating viable social movements.

In her feature piece “Second Life’s
Real-World Problems,” TIME correspondent Kristina Dell portrays Second Life as
little more than a den
of “low traffic and raunchy behavior,”
and predicts its limited utility as
a small commercial sphere. Second Life’s ability to serve as a virtual base for
political speech proves this view short-sighted and cynical.

Authoritarian governments that
repress real-world demonstrations have difficulty doing the same in the synthetic
world. Virtual rallies are so hard to shut off because the mechanics of virtual
protest are fluid. Squeeze one part of the tube and, like a massive balloon,
the momentum simply transfers to another segment. Unlike actual rallies, there
is no centralized base that can be “raided” by security forces, and virtual
participants are likely to notice sudden changes in the activity levels of
prominent activists.

Indeed, the
efforts of real-world governments to restrict the Internet usage of virtual
protesters appears to strengthen the rallies as the online community responds
to what it views as an offense against expression. So, for instance, Second
Life’s virtual protests continued – and even increased
in scale
– after real-world Iranians started to mysteriously disappear from
the synthetic world.

The media coverage of Second Life’s
virtual Iranian protests had the unintended effect of drawing a coalition
of real-world human rights groups into the virtual fray. United 4 Iran, a group of human rights
groups including Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, held a
fundraiser entirely in Second Life that solicited donations by way of
“United4Iran boxes” freely copied and placed throughout the synthetic world by

The donation boxes collected nearly 215,000 Linden Dollars, Second
Life’s virtual currency that is freely exchangeable for real-world currencies. When converted, that
$800 will maintain United4Iran’s virtual humanitarian presence for over a year.

Real Meaning in Synthetic Worlds

If protests like those in support
of Iran’s
democratic movement gain credibility as legitimate forms of protest – which, by
all rights, they are – the potential for a paradigm shift in dissent speech is
fast approaching. The potential exists for a system where undemocratic
governments are held accountable through cyberspace even after making domestic
political dissent impossible and dangerous for real-world protesters.

Young, politically minded activists
coming of age in today’s computerized world will find less and less trouble
circumventing government censors through rudimentary routers and proxy systems.
This offers the possibility of a world where cyberspace falls beyond the reach
of all but the most repressive governments, creating a strong incentive for
governments to keep access to cyberspace open.

Synthetic worlds also offer
tangible benefits to nations and organizations that become early adopters of
future synthetic world technology. A human rights nonprofit with an office in
Second Life could receive more accurate information from affected groups that
out of necessity can’t be seen physically conspiring with the foreign
nonprofit. Conflict regions where governments often restrict foreign nonprofit
activity will open as residents circumvent physical borders through cyberspace.

Several real-world human rights
groups have already built a presence in Second Life. The Four Bridges Project,
an alliance of nonprofits that includes Amnesty
, Imagine Network, Peace Train, and others, manages a large
virtual island devoted to spreading human rights awareness.

Large buildings
filled with information on human rights abuses, international studies, and
awareness podcasts scatter the island. Many of Amnesty International’s reports
on human rights are accessible through Second Life’s in-game browser without
ever leaving the synthetic world.

Synthetic worlds can be a strong
and sustained force for good. Even now, months after Iran’s suspect election, a million
digital protestors unafraid of Iran’s
notorious prisons defy the security patrols on the streets of Tehran and continue to speak out for justice.

5 thoughts on “The Iranian Opposition’s Second Life”

  1. Absolutely fantastic, it’s good to see that even with such a tight security Iranians are able to voice themselves in times of need. I wish they were allowed a better way to express themselves but who knows when that will happen. Great writing and sources, you seemed really into the topic which helped bring it further into the light.

  2. A thoughtful and detailed first post! Congrats on the new blog!
    I do have to ask how you respond to the critique that the Iranian government could care less if there are little digital characters waving little signs in a virtual space they will never visit. Are these actions promoting real change or simply diverting energy that could be spent in other more visible ways?

  3. Blog Watch: “Pixels & Policy” explores how virtual worlds change politics

    Politico and virtual world explorer Max Burns contacted me the tell that he has launched a new blog “Pixels and Policy” that will examine how real world politics and policy is impacted by virtual worlds like Second Life. Sounds like concerns very near …

  4. @rikomatic:
    I think the same argument could be made about the usefulness (or lack thereof) of real-world protest. Who cares if a bunch of people show up in a marketplace waving signs and shouting in unison? Does it make a concrete difference? And yet it matters enough to totalitarian governments that they’ll go to great lengths to stop it from happening, because it reflects badly on them.
    The same principle applies to SL protests, particularly in areas where the only reason they’re happening in SL is because real-world governments won’t allow them to happen anywhere else. The point of a protest isn’t what concrete effect it has; the point is that it happens at all. Max brings up a good point in that as the cycle of mainstream news coverage and virtual participation deepens, people will be forced to take virtual protests just as seriously as real-life ones. After all, the people behind those protesting avatars are every bit as real in the physical world as they are in cyberspace.

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