When my wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was suddenly detained by the Iranian state and thrown into prison in 2016 while on holiday, our family’s life was transformed in ways none of us could have anticipated.
Very quickly, I devoted myself to one thing: campaigning for her release. One of the first things I did was create an online petition calling for both the UK and Iran to do everything they could to make this happen. It felt brave, since both governments from the beginning told us to keep quiet.
I posted my petition and Nazanin’s story on social media. Within 10 days the petition had generated 500,000 signatures, thanks to ordinary people sharing what was happening to her. The speed at which the campaign grew shifted the balance of power in our favour. The story was out there, and it shocked people that the government was seemingly doing nothing to help.
As a result, I was invited to discuss Nazanin’s imprisonment with the Foreign Office. In Iran, the public exposure of Nazanin’s case meant that for the first time, Nazanin was also finally given a family visit.
Not only were our social media updates reaching thousands of supportive people, but they could also be viewed by the Iranian authorities, who subsequently started to respond. Gradually I came to realise her imprisonment was not personal, but a fight between two governments, with Nazanin as the political football in the middle.
Traditional media covered us also, but typically only sporadically, when there was something new to say. Once the news cycle moved on, we kept the pressure on both the UK and the Iranian government via social media: it ensured that they understood we were not going away.
Naturally, different people in our story saw different things: some saw the abusiveness of the Iranian regime, others the hypocrisy of the West; some saw the irresponsibility of ministers, others the bias of their critics. People cherry-picked the parts that resonated for them.
That’s not to say we didn’t also experience an uglier side of social media during our campaign. As our profile grew, some on social media used parts of Nazanin’s story as a coat-hook for their own political agenda. It happened across the spectrum, but it took us to odd places. I found that different parts of false Iranian propaganda could be regurgitated uncritically by those on the left and the right, because they confirmed the biases in domestic fights.
At points, it felt like discussions about Nazanin on social media were rarely an attempt to understand what was happening to her or to others, or how the UK was dealing so badly with Iran’s hostage-taking, and more like a kind of flag-rallying. It felt similar to how rival football fans discuss a player or a match. You can score points against each other, but no one is trying to persuade anyone else to change sides.
We realised that even though you can control how you tell a story, you cannot control how others hear it. The important point for us was never to control, but to share.
It was a reach we would not have had a generation earlier. Back then, the slow action of the Foreign Office wasn’t challenged as much, because far less was known about cases like Nazanin’s. Most knowledge came from the government, or from a narrow pool of media. And it was virtually impossible to engage with people in foreign countries.
But now, social media has democratised people’s voices in ways that its founders probably didn’t dream of. I went on shows that were broadcast into living rooms in Tehran and throughout the region. I could write things that would be read by Nazanin’s interrogators, and their bosses. It could be double-edged – but that is a significant power.
Our story also shows that social media has its limits – traditional media is still far better placed for long-term, investigative reporting, even if this can seem like a dying practice in the internet age. And important messages can get lost in the sea of information and misinformation that is uploaded every day.
But society should be extremely careful not to be too quick to clamp down on people’s ability to speak freely online. Social media has its dark sides, but it also has its light. Current events in Iran give a clear picture of what life in the darkness looks like. The internet is suppressed routinely there. You can see it happening in the ongoing protests triggered by the brutal policing of headscarves.
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The government in Iran is desperately trying to suppress news of what many of its young women are doing, by shutting off the internet and making it illegal to access different apps. When that happened last time in 2019, many people were then killed. The debates have also been bitter online – Iranian social media can have a different order of viciousness. It reflects the tensions outside.
And yet, especially here, it has been the sunlight of social media that has kept people safe. It is why it is important that we all keep watching events in Tehran. Social media played a huge role in getting Nazanin home, and it continues to play a huge role for marginalised people all over the world. We should bear that in mind.
Richard Ratcliffe is the husband of former hostage Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. He is speaking at the RISING Global Peace Forum 2022 in Coventry Cathedral between Wednesday 9 November and Friday 11 November about how peace can be built and destroyed through the use of digital media