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How Media Coverage Shapes Foreign Policy: The Case of Iran

Thya Gutta

Over the past few decades, the Iranian government has faced great turmoil and dissent from its citizens due to its oppressive policies, violence, and discrimination. Women and the LGBTQ community have often faced the brunt of this discrimination. The most recent protests in Iran started in September of 2022 after the morality police arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini and her subsequent death. Amini allegedly violated strict Iranian laws which stipulate that women must cover their hair with a hijab or headscarf in public. According to some reports, the police had beat Amini with a baton. However, authorities claimed that Amini went into a coma due to a heart attack. The first protests in Iran following Amini’s arrest occurred at her funeral where multiple women removed their headscarves in solidarity. Since then, there has been an increase in protests and many of Iran’s Gen Z have taken to social media to plead their case. Due to the heavy censorship of media in Iran, social media has been the primary method that Iranians have used to communicate the atrocities they face, as well as their demands and purpose for protesting with the outside world. Social media has also been the main avenue for uncensored coverage of the protests.

As an ever-growing presence in people’s lives, social media is extremely powerful in the way that it influences public opinions and perceptions. Social media has the ability to provide users with live updates on any conflict across the globe which then gives social media the power to influence ongoing conflicts. Due to its interactive nature, social media makes it seem as though everyone is connected and involved with a conflict, even if it is happening on the other side of the world from them. Iranian protesters were able to garner support for their cause through flooding the internet with Tweets, TikToks, and Instagram posts. While the heavily censored state-run media in Iran was reporting a death toll of 17, protesters were able to convey the true, much higher, numbers through social media.

The international relations theory of liberalism proposes that public opinion shapes foreign policy, especially in a democracy, because politicians aim to keep their citizens happy in order to increase their chances of winning future elections. Studies have shown that in recent history, public opinion has begun to set parameters for politicians to operationalize a foreign policy strategy within. Following the Vietnam War, American presidents had difficulty convincing the public to support interventionist policies, ultimately preventing the Reagan administration from intervening in Nicaragua.

The media serves as a primary source of information and it holds the imperative power of agenda-setting. Because the media controls what the public is seeing the most of, they indirectly control what issues citizens form opinions on. The 24/7 news cycle combined with the power over public perception means that the media has the ability to pressure government decision-making. Governments and politicians can also leverage the media to put pressure on foreign governments by raising awareness of issues in the international sphere. Most importantly, the media and its consumers can put pressure on their governments to act or not act when conflicts arise. In terms of Iran, social media has been the driving force behind the spread of information on the protests. When major media outlets initially neglected to cover the story, the outpouring of Iranian voices on social media forced them to listen. The circulation of Iranian stories on social media has garnered mainstream media attention which in turn forces governments around the world to take action against the current regime.

A driving factor of the success behind this movement in Iran is that women are at the center of it. According to scholars from Harvard Kennedy School, “when women are on the frontlines, mass movements have a higher chance of succeeding.” In the years leading up to these protests, the Iranian government has become much more strict on laws regarding women and has implemented laws to force women into the status of “second-class citizens.” As a result, women’s rights have been at the forefront of the protests. The feminist rhetoric leading this movement has created a foundation for a much more democratic-leaning uprising than ever before. Women in Iran have been able to circumvent the heavy censorship by posting defiant acts on social media platforms to emphasize their discontent and their demands for basic rights. Women have also used social media to facilitate larger, public acts of defiance, such as removing their headscarves in public.

Since the start of the protests, the Iranian government has tightened its censorship of social media, even going as far as removing social media apps from the app store and banning virtual private networks. However, as the government becomes stricter, women and Gen Z are becoming more creative in the ways that they bypass censorship.



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