Earlier this month, Obama administration has decided to “permit technology companies to export online services like instant messaging, chat and photo sharing to IranCuba and Sudan“, according to the New York Times.

The newspaper reported that “there have been growing calls in Congress and elsewhere to lift the restrictions, particularly after the postelection protests in Iran illustrated the power of Internet-based services like Facebook and Twitter”, and by loosening these restrictions, Obama administrations aims to “exploit the Internet’s potential for prying open closed societies”

It is true that the role of social media networks in the Iranian post-election crisis can’t be overlooked. In fact, many believe these services were “used” to draw the path the crisis has followed. But as Sudan approaches rare presidential and parliamentary elections next April, a valid question arises:

What are the chances for social media to play a similar role in Sudan’s election?

Well, analyzing what happened in Iran can help in building a model that can be used to understand the big picture in Sudan and hence reaching a reliable conclusion.

But I need to make it clear that this post is not about discussion the election in Sudan and the tension it causes. Instead, I’m discussing whether the social media websites will be heavily used to broadcast the news of the election and any possible “consequences”.

As Iranian president claimed victory in the election on June 12, the demonstrations started to outbreak in Tehran’s streets. During the following days, the Iranian authorities took several actions to “control” or even “block” the flow of information from inside Iran to the world through the “traditional” media channels. These actions included for instance shutting down Al-Arabiya office in Tehran and forcing  many  foreign reporters to leave the country.

But as the authorities started chocking these traditional channels, Twitter bird started tweeting!

During the first days of the crisis, search hits on Google from inside Tehran using keywords such as “Twitter” and “Facebook” have increased remarkably reflecting the people pursuit for alternative sources of information. In addition,  thousands gathered in groups on Facebook and used these groups as a platform to communicate news update from inside Iran and global support. But it was Twitter that dominated as the top alternative channel to broadcast instant updates from inside Iran. The involvement of Twitter in the crisis reached its peak on June 15, when US. State Dept. urged Twitter to delay the regular maintenance of the website to allow protesters to continue posting the crisis updates. Twitter turned to be a tool in the game of international politics!

Of course the debate on whether that was a “revolution” or another “conspiracy” wouldn’t end soon, but in my opinion, the following factors have contributed to this unprecedented role of online social media in such a political crisis:

First: the significance of Iran to the “international community” because of other issues such as its controversial nuclear program. This is a very important factors, otherwise why would the outside world be interested in knowing what goes on inside or influencing the situation there?!

Second: the aggressive behavior of the Iranian government towards traditional media channels during the crisis. If the government allows the “traditional” media to operate as usual, why would people check the 140 characters offered by Twitter instead of watching news on BBC?!

Third: the high internet penetration in Iran. According to the UN e-Government survey 2008, this rate reaches 29% which is one of the highest figures in the region. A high internet penetration means that more “people” will have the chance to act as “reporters” and upload what they see in their local streets to the internet. However, I put this factor third because even with a low internet penetration, a handful of well organized activists can get the job done.

Forth: the large and active Iranian immigrants in Europe and US, although not all of them of course are engaged in the opposition but they considered the social media as the only way for them to stay connected to their home country in the absence of the “traditional media”.

Together, these factors can be used to examine the chances social media have to act as an “alternative” channel during any political crisis, and in extreme cases as a “tool” to influence the way such crisis evolves!

When applying this model on the situation in Sudan, we can observe the following:

Although the country has managed to attract regional and international attention in the last decade because of the crisis in Darfur, Sudan can’t be compared to Iran when it comes to its priority in the international political agenda. The low internet penetration  and the absence of well organized opposition both inside and outside the country won’t incentivize the social media to play a crucial role. However, the only factor that act in the opposite direction according  to our proposed model is the impatience of the government when it to comes to free media! The government behavior during the protests last December and the current doctors strike present perfect examples. In both cases, the government has acted as a typical authoritarian one and banned the “traditional media” from covering those activities. As a result, few videos and some images found their way to Youtube and Facebook.

Both Facebook groups  “Girifna” which is a gathering place for those who refuse to elect President Al Bashir and the official group of the president’s campaign have barely managed to attract 5,000 members!

So to conclude, I can say that according to the proposed model we can expect a limited use of social media in sharing election related news and media content but we shouldn’t wait for a massive use the way it happened in Iran. The only thing that can change this is a serious crisis and a high international attention!

I believe the question I raised above is valid and important to discuss, but I also believe that for a young Sudanese like me there are other issues that are more important to worry about than Obama’s decision and the upcoming election. My real concern when it comes to online social media is: how can we leverage social media to promote good governance and enable social change in Sudan?

I’ll get back to this later in another post.