Iranians in Canada will not be able to vote in Iran's presidential election on June 14, 2103, but thanks to an initiative [fa] by a group of Iranian expatriates they were at least able to cast a symbolic ballot. At four polling stations in different parts of Toronto, Iranians were able to register who they would have voted for. Social media was useful for organizing the activity, but as Arash Kamangir, a Toronto-based blogger and civil society activist says in this interview with Global Voices, the goal was to encourage face to face political conversations between Iranians in the real world.
Global Voices: Who are you and what did you plan to do?
Arash Kamangir: We are a group of Iranians in Toronto and we do not necessarily have the same points of view on all issues related to Iran, but we obviously have many similar perspectives. One of the points on which all of us have an agreement is that change only happens when people request it and participate in the process of delivering it. We believe that boycotting an election is a convenient, and maybe a romantic and idealistic approach, but nevertheless, in order to be able to be a part of the solution individuals must use their right to vote.
We wanted to raise awareness on the importance of participation in the political process and also state our objection to the closure of the Iranian embassy in Ottawa. To our understanding the Iranian government and the Canadian government, both, are responsible for this outcome. Not only this incident has caused many hardships for the Iranian community in Canada, whom need consulate services for passports and other government-related items, but also, and more importantly, the fact that the Islamic Republic has no official presence on Canadian land has resulted in the loss of many opportunities. For example, the Canadian government was able to be a voice to push for respect for rights of individuals in prison and those being prosecuted in the past. When there was a physical consulate, we, the Iranian population of Canada, were able to engage with the Iranian mission. One of our goals in what we did was to remind and protest against the loss of these opportunities.
How did you use social media and blogs for your purpose?
Everything started with a group message on Facebook, but we soon moved to the physical world, where we had our nightly meetings in a pub. We set up two Facebook pages, one for the organizers and one for the volunteers. We then set up a Facebook event to invite the public. We ended up inviting about 1,500 people to our event, and received 200 accepts. Our team was composed of 20 core people and about 10 volunteers. We communicated among ourselves using the two Facebook groups, Facebook messages, and also our cellphones. We also used Twitter to reach out to the general public of the web and used email to communicate with the media. One blogger in our team also blogged about the event. At the end, we collected about 500 votes in the three-day program.
How did the virtual world and the physical world meet in your initiative?
Well, there was a suggestion that we would set up the polling stations in the virtual world, or that we would at least have an online component. We said no to all of that, because we wanted to get engaged with the public in the physical world. The virtual world was essentially the means of communication and coordination for us. Everything else happened in the physical world. This helped us to reach individuals whom we would have not been able to get in touch with, if we had stayed in the confinement of the virtual world.
We set up our four polling stations in locations where Iranians frequent. We had one close to University of Toronto, another one close to a big Iranian shopping area, and the next in a square in the Iranian quarter of Toronto. This helped us to talk to Iranians from different walks of life, diverse backgrounds, and different political and social views. We gave the attendees a physical ballet and had a conversation with them, sometimes a long one. One of the points that our group had explicit agreement on was that online tools are absolutely necessary in this time and age, but that, nevertheless, human connection happens in the physical realm. We wanted people, not avatars, and thus we went to the physical world.