Generation Z in Iran: Organizing on SNS, Partying in the Mall

Dr. Raz Zimmt analyzes the phenomenon of social networks such as Telegram being used to organize social activities in public places among Iranian youth.
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Young people gathering in Tehran’s Kourosh Complex, from Telegram
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Young people gathering in Tehran’s Kourosh Complex, from Telegram

In June, thousands of young Iranians attended large-scale social gatherings organized via social networking sites (SNS). Two major events in Tehran and Mashhad, intended to celebrate the end of the school year, were forcibly dispersed by security forces, which consequently sparked widespread public discourse.  On the one hand, there were those who were envious of the young people for their daring, and considered the gatherings acts of protest. On the other hand, they were criticized harshly, both online and in traditional media, for an ostensible crisis of values plaguing “Generation Z” – people who were born from 1990 through 2005 – in Iran. These events provide a window to the impressive ability of young people in Iran to convene gatherings using SNS, as well as the possible political implications of this kind of activity.

On June 7, thousands of young people gathered at the Kourosh shopping and entertainment complex in western Tehran, which was organized using SNS. Using an Instagram page with over 2,000 followers[1] and a Telegram channel with more than 16,000 members,[2] the organizers invited young Iranians to the complex to celebrate the end of school exams and the beginning of summer vacation. A few hours before the planned event, the organizers sent an announcement on the Telegram channel saying that the meeting was cancelled, due to lack of coordination with the security authorities.[3] Despite this, nearly 2,000 young people came to the mall where they celebrated and danced for a short time until they were dispersed by security forces. Photos and videos documenting the young revelers in the complex and beyond were recorded and distributed on SNS.[4]

Dispersal of the young people by police did not stop attempts to organize similar meetings in Tehran and other cities. In late June, a similar event was organized using SNS by young people in Mashhad. The event attracted hundreds of young people and was also forcibly dispersed by the police, who claimed they were disrupting the public order. The Deputy Attorney General in Mashhad said that during the incident several young men were arrested, including two, aged 19 and 20, who organized the event. The defendants claimed, he reported, that they organized the event using SNS in order to prove to their friends in Tehran that young people in Mashhad could convene a similar meeting.[5] In other words, organizing through SNS is not limited to Tehran and can also exist in peripheral areas such as Mashhad, which is characterized by a relatively conservative population.

Reports about the young peoples’ gatherings in Tehran and Mashhad were met with varied responses on SNS and news sites, and included expressions of support alongside criticism of their behavior. Users praised the young people for their organizing ability, and courage to hold large social gatherings without fear. “The difference between me and those born in the nineties and the new millennium is that I talked, but they do,” wrote one user.[6] Some even compared these acts to the protest movement that erupted in Iran in the summer of 2009, following the reformist opposition’s allegations of forgery in the presidential elections.[7]

There were also many contrary responses that included expressions of derision and scorn for Generation Z in Iran, claiming that they prefer to celebrate and be entertained at malls and entertainment centers, without any worthy purpose. They were compared to the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s who led the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and those born in the 1980s who led the uprising of 2009. This is not the first time that the behavior of young people in Iran has sparked strident discourse about the crisis of values in Iranian society. Other such occasions included, for example, the mass mourning of Iranian young people after the death in November 2014 of pop singer Morteza Pashaei from cancer, which led to discussion of such processes occurring in Iranian society.[8]

Especially harsh criticism against the young people’s behavior came from the media affiliated with the conservative right. An article published in Vatan-e-Emrooz also outlined the differences between gatherings of today’s young people and those of those born in the 1980s who gathered to mark religious occasions, sports victories or political protests. This suggests, the daily contends, the “moral vacuum” of Iranian society and expresses a weakening of its traditional social values of modesty, honor and self-esteem. The article also criticized the intensive activities of Iranian youth on SNS, arguing that they are fed by the information disseminated online and are led by it, and that they value things based on the feedback their posts receive online. Because of the long time they spend in virtual worlds, young Iranians allegedly do not distinguish between patterns of behavior acceptable on SNS and those acceptable in real life, and therefore also behave immorally at real meetings.[9]

Alongside the criticism along ethical lines, the conservative daily Jahan News also warned of the potential political and security implications of young people organizing on SNS. The newspaper blamed the behavior of young people, which it described as “reckless,” on the indifference of the institutions that promote online activity, and the failure of the intelligence and security services to monitor SNS so as to become updated about planned meetings in advance. The daily also warned of the possibility that foreign intelligence services would use this as means to undermine the Iranian regime. If Telegram had been used during the 2009 riots, the newspaper said, foreign intelligence services could have taken advantage of the app to organize widespread street rioting.

The gatherings of young people in Tehran and Mashhad rekindled public criticism over the loss of core values ​​among Iranian youth, while pointing out their ability to organize on SNS, which could be used for political purposes in the future. However, the most prominent tendency of Iranian young people is to gather without a socio-political purpose, which could be an expression of political escapism, which expresses young Iranians’ shift away from engaging in political affairs towards a preference to dedicate their time to entertainment and leisure, as part of a larger process of de-politicization occurring in Iranian society.

Koroush Shopping Center on quieter days. Credit: Skyscrapercity.com
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Koroush Shopping Center on quieter days. Credit: Skyscrapercity.com

 


[4] See, for example, https://twitter.com/secret6813/status/740476868386770944 [Accessed: July 8, 2016]

[5] “Organizers of the gathering of children of the 70s arrested in Mashhad.” [The 1990s were the 1370s on Iranian calendar.] Radio Ferara, June 26, 2016.

[7] For reactions to the gathering on Twitter, see: http://bit.ly/2aRFHzp; http://bit.ly/2aD6gad

[9] “Analysis of the gathering of [children of] eighties [according to the Iranian calendar] at the Kourosh complex,” Vatan Emrooz, June 14, 2016.