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Today, for most of us, checking Facebook and Twitter for news is a common activity. Through social media networks we have witnessed regimes fall, for example that of Mubarak’s, and seen popular movements progress, like Occupy Wall Street. The media’s reliance on social media is not necessarily negative but sometimes things go wrong. The Iranian green movement is a grave case of how the media’s dependence on facebook for facts can change the fate of a citizen — like Neda Soltani.
June 21, 2009, started out like any other day for the 32-year old English Literature lecturer Neda Soltani. As she went by her daily routines, it was not before returning home in the evening that she found several messages and notifications awaiting her. Her friends, family, acquaintances – all were saying: “We saw you on CNN, we saw you on Fox News, we saw you on Farsi channels, Iranian channels.”
There had been an identity mix-up; her photo was used interchangeably with that of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year old who was shot during a protest in Tehran the previous day. Jezebel reported that the photo swap occurred when the Iranian Green movement supporters searched for a picture of the late Neda and took a picture from her Facebook profile. However, that profile did not belong to Neda Agha-Soltan, it belonged to Neda Soltani.
Neda Agha-Soltan was viewed by local and international media as a martyr, but her face was that of Ms. Soltani. Though the photo error was corrected 48 hours later after the martyr’s family released a photo of the late Neda, the damage was done: Soltani’s face has been all over news outlets and social media networks worldwide.
Life as she knew it was gone. Ms. Soltani had to flee her homeland and leave her family and friends. Since the Iranian government felt hassled by all attention, they wanted to say that Neda Agha-Soltan was in fact alive and the whole event was just a misinformation. Ms. Soltani told BBC News, that the Iranian government wanted her to admit that “the photo had not been taken from her facebook page but had been released by the European Union. They accused the European Union, the United Kingdom and of course the US.”
After, Ms. Soltani refused to co-operate with the Iranian regime, her situation kept on getting worse; some of those in contact with her started to view her as a threat. She lost her boyfriend to this ordeal. Ms. Soltani was accused of betraying the national security of Iran. Poynter quoted her saying, “I was charged with being a spy for the CIA and told to sign a confession. I knew very well that such an accusation could end in a death sentence for me in Iran.”
Three years later, Ms. Soltani spoke of the devastating event to BBC News. She described the ordeal as a “surreal, Kafkaesque experience” that occurred within a duration of 12 days. Ms. Soltani first fled to Turkey, then to Greece, and finally to Germany, where she stayed at a refugee camp. Today, she is pursuing a fellowship at a University in the United States. According to Ruhrbarone a German journalism blog, Ms. Soltani’s picture was used widely by CNN, BBC, CBS, Fox News, ZDF, ARD, and other news stations.
“Looking back, the people I am most angry with are the Western media. They kept using my photo even though they knew it was not a picture of the real victim in that tragic video. They knowingly exposed me to extreme danger. I can never be the person that I was before these things happened. I’m still suffering from depression, I am still suffering from nightmares.” - Neda Soltani in the BBC interview.
Ms. Soltani’s story is a powerful example of how social media can impact and change the life of regular citizen. How a mere picture off of facebook can be used and distributed to the masses without prior notice. Ms. Soltani wrote a book about her surreal experience named, My Stolen Face.