CAMD Scholar DJ Bierwirth Presents Research on Iranian Internet Censorship

Having grown up in Germany, but originally of Iranian descent, Djavaneh Bierwirth ’14 relied on the Internet as her sole means of communication with her Iranian relatives. When government censorship restricted Iranian access to such avenues in 2001, Bierwirth became intrigued by the restrictions on the use of technology in 21st century Iran.

Bierwirth’s CAMD Scholar presentation, “The Green Movement: An Examination of Online Media Censorship and its Implications on the Political Sphere of 21st-Century Iran,” focused on the role that the internet had on the Green Movement. The movement disputed the validity of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections and compared the censorship climate then with that of the current day.

Organizationally, the Green Movement relied so heavily on the Internet and social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, that it was dubbed the “Twitter Revolution” by many news organizations.

While Bierwirth stressed the impact of the Internet as a means of communicating and organizing social movements and revolutions, she concluded that the Internet and social networks were only catalysts for the revolutions and did not create the political unrest themselves.

Following the Green Movement, however, the government became more strict with its censors, as well as more sophisticated in its blocking methods., for example, a website that shows pictures of attractive foods, was blocked pre-2009 by a system that censored websites based on keywords found. However, after 2009, when government filters could recognize both keywords and content, the site was available again.

“I hoped to highlight that the Internet is a tremendous resource, especially for us students at PA. I wanted call attention to the fact that access to a free Internet is not the case in every country,” said Bierwirth.

After talking to Reza Aslan, religious scholar and Founder of “Aslan Media,” an online newspaper focused on the Middle East, who visited Andover last year, Bierwirth decided to specifically concentrate on the impact the Internet and online media censorship had on the Iranian Green Movement.

A native speaker of Farsi and English, Bierwirth examined documents, books and websites written in both languages for her research.

“As is often the case with reading reports in different languages, a lot can be lost in translation. In particular, the Iranian state media’s portrayal of the Green Movement showed a radically different perspective on many of the issues. Western-based websites such as ‘Reporters Without Borders’ are a lot less restricted in their ability to condemn many of the government’s actions in regards to violations of press freedom,” said Bierwirth.

Although Bierwirth had originally planned to travel to Iran to interview different students at the University of Iran to discuss their impressions and reactions to the Green Movement, safety concerns prevented her from doing so.

“It was difficult for me to arrange a time to safely travel to Iran. On the one hand, concerns arose leading up to the 2013 election, for many people believed that protests would follow the election regardless of the candidate that would be put into office,” said Bierwirth.

Susan Torabi worked with Bierwirth as her faculty advisor for the project. “Both of us share a personal connection to the topic. Her mom is from Iran and so is my husband. I think both DJ and I regret how isolated this beautiful country, so rich in history and culture, has become over the past decades. We both have family there and wished that it were easier to travel there as well as for Iranians to leave the country,” said Torabi.