In some ways, the Internet is a type of machine for information. And once that machine starts rolling, it’s hard to slow the wheels. An individual can be caught in the spokes, injured and stuck for good.
I was both horrified and fascinated recently to hear the story on National Public Radio (NPR) of an Iranian woman whose life was torn apart by an Internet error. While the story from so far away may seem irrelevant to most of us, it highlights the potential dark side of social media and the unquestioned reliance on the new tool by the global press.
Remember the uprisings in Iran in 2009? Many in Iran were outraged over the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying the election was rigged.
The government’s reaction to the protests was violent. Protestors were imprisoned and tortured. Twenty-six-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan was driving to an election protest when she got caught in a traffic jam in Tehran. Her car’s air conditioner wasn’t working. So she stepped out of her car to get some air. A government sniper then shot her in the chest. A bystander filmed the scene as she lay dying on the ground by her car. The nation was infuriated. And the video of her death hit the Internet in what could be considered the most “widely witnessed death in human history.”
Agha-Soltan’s photograph was also flashed across the globe. And her mugshot became the symbol of the Iranian protests — how unjust and oppressive the Ahmadinejad government truly was, how it would gun down a peaceful citizen, any citizen.
But the photo that crossed the globe wasn’t actually the victim. It was another Iranian woman, Neda Soltani, an English literature professor.
Soltani checked her email on June 21, 2009, and found 60 requests of friendship from Facebook users. But the government was restricting Facebook access for its citizens, so she couldn’t log onto the site. So, she logged onto Facebook using anti-censorship software. She soon discovered that her image had been mistaken for the sniper victim.
“Somebody — I don’t know who to this day — did their research and just came across my profile and face,” said Soltani. “Because of the name similarity, I don’t know. I posted on my Facebook that I was alive and it was a misunderstanding and that this photo does not belong to the person they are looking for. I thought this would be the quickest way to inform as many people as I could.”
She and her friends began to contact every news organization they could think of. She contacted CNN and they didn’t correct the error. She contacted other organizations, with one even using other photos of her that she sent to prove her identity as “exclusive” photos of the victim.
Soltani was caught up in the Internet machinery, where every tweet and Facebook post further cemented the mistake globally.
But the Iranian government caught wind of the mistake. The Iranian intelligence agency interrogated her three times. They wanted to film a video of her saying that she was alive, that the whole shooting was fabricated and an elaborate example of Western propaganda to make the Iranian government look bad.
Soltani refused and was threatened with treason, which carries a death sentence.
“They told me that my lack of co-operation was, in fact, a contribution of the Western attack on our Islamic fatherland,” said Soltani.
Soltani realized that her mistaken death could lead to her actual death at the hands of her own government. She fled Iran and sought asylum in Germany. She spent nine months in a 12-square-metre cell with three other political refugees. She was eventually granted a scholarship from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund to teach in New Jersey. She also wrote a book about her ordeal, “My Stolen Face.”
She is still an exile from her homeland and cannot go back to see her family.
Of course, this is an extreme case of an Internet mistake. The error was truly grave under a hostile dictatorship. And Americans who hear this story can feel some comfort in knowing that this nation, for all of its horrible flaws, is still one that enjoys political freedoms that others are willing to die for.
But the story hit me as a true 21st century nightmare. Such a Kafkaesque tale of surreal alienation is possible in this new global information machine we call the Internet.
Forget slasher films. That’s really creepy to me.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.