Researching and writing about politics and power in global media

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My scholarly interests relate to the way media reflects, undermines, reinforces, and changes power in modern societies. My conceptualization of power is a constitutive one, as it looks at the underlying relations of force that structure and shape identities, interests and meanings in a co-constitutive way, and accepts the relevance and impact that technology has on social relations and vise versa. This interest is perhaps best reflected in my upcoming book on the history and politics of media in Iran. Entitled Soft War: Media, Ideology, and the Legitimation of Power in Iran, the book is an exploration of media in the construction and legitimation of hegemonic power (1942-2018).


Book Manuscript

While it is widely acknowledged that modern communication technologies are vital to our understanding of political, social, economic and cultural life, a complete, timely examination of Iran’s encounter with modern communication technology has yet to be published. Soft War fills this gap. This is a book about media and power in modern Iran. 

From former President Mohammad Khatami to current President Hassan Rouhani, successive leaders have struggled to navigate the fraught political-cultural space of media in the Islamic Republic of Iran— skirting the lines between embracing the Western communications technologies and ethos, and rejecting them; and between condemning social networking sites as foreign treachery, and promoting themselves on Facebook. How does a regime that derived its hegemony from the ability to mass-communicate its ideology, protect its ideological dominance in an environment characterized by “disruptive power” (Owen, 2015) and “mass self-communication” (Castells, 2007)? What is the role of media in the construction of political power in Iran?

This book addresses these questions by examining the institutions, policies and communications of two political regimes through the course of more than five decades and several communication paradigms. Beginning in the late twentieth century in the flagging days of the monarchy, Soft War takes us through the revolution of 1979 and the “imposed war” (jang-e tahmili) with Iraq, to the present, where we see a regime struggling to manage the divergent impulses of the nativist, populist, revolutionary movement that brought it to power and the challenges of maintaining that power today.

This a partly a historical examination. Drawing from over 300 primary sources in Farsi and English, including never before used documents from archives in Iran and the United States, Soft War is the first book in more than two decades to offer a complete history of Iranian media institutions and strategies across political regimes and media paradigms—from Iran’s first encounter with mass communication in the 1940s, to the dawn of digital media in the 1990s, to internet and mobile telephony today.

At the same time, the book trains a keen eye on contemporary politics. With foundations in sociology and political science, Soft War offers insight into the political communication strategy of the contemporary ruling establishment—a political regime born out of what has become known as the “first televised revolution” (Ansari, 2007).

“Soft war,” jang-e narm in Farsi, is both an alluring title for a book and a useful heuristic for my central point of inquiry—that is, the role of mass media in the legitimation of power. The phrase began appearing in state communication products in the early part of this century. However, its conceptual origin goes back decades. As hypermediated political myth, soft war is a long-standing strategy of regime legitimation. As a dialectical and a heuristic device, it captures the tension between the liberating impulse of digital media and the conservative impulse of Velayat-e Faqeh (Guardianship of the Jurist) in Iran today.

The Prussian military strategist Carl Van Clausewitz famously wrote that politics is war by other means. In Iran, the concept of “soft war” can be understood as a modern, “Persianized,” interpretation of this classical maxim. In other words, in the political ideology of Iran’s Supreme Leader, media is war.  As Khamenei has said himself, regime hegemony is won and protected through “war…within the media.”


Current project

I recently teamed up with a colleague in UVA's School of Computer Science and Engineering on a study of the cyber tactics and networked media practices of the white supremacist movement during the “Unite the Right” (UtR) rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11 and 12 2017.   Through cyber forensics and critical analysis of primary documents and media texts, we document elements of hybrid warfare---what we call "digital insurgency." The project offers insight into how contemporary extremist groups in the US are exploiting the ungoverned spaces of the internet to attack the structures and processes of democratic governance.


Future project

A second avenue of interest relates to the securitization and governmentality of information intermediaries and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This interest draws from a number of roundtables and brown bag lunches I have participated in as a Fellow at the Internet Governance Lab at American University.

In the last years especially, information intermediaries have been taking actions once ascribed to government such as surveilling, censoring, and exacting punishment for violations of its laws. Not only do these platforms assume responsibility for matters of governance, they increasingly make attribution claims.  Future research will look at the problem of attribution as it relates to information integrity on social media (i.e. “fake news”). Specifically, my research will investigate how and why a social media platform like Facebook and an information aggregate like YouTube decides to make an attribution claim concerning the false or misleading representation of a user, a group, or news event.  Such an investigation would offer insight on the governmentally of information intermediaries in the absence of government regulation and oversight. A related phenomenon that merits attention is the trend in “de-platforming” by information intermediaries in response to the white nationalist movement in the United States.



Ongoing research

A third area of interest relates to the global trend in “data sovereignty.” In the wake of the Snowden revelations, there has been a marked global shift towards the territorialization of online space. Nations such as Iran, Russia, and China have passed laws requiring network intermediaries to store user data and content within their sovereign borders and forcing ISPs to conduct surveillance and censorship on behalf of the state. I am interested in how nations use imaginaries of security to legitimate the control and regulation of the information intermediaries. Future research may include a comparative multinational study of the issue of data territorialization and “internet nationalism” from a technical, economic, and cultural lens.

To discuss the projects I have worked on, contact me today.


Dr. Emily L. Blout is a professorial lecturer at the School of Communication at American University.  Before joining American, she was an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at University of Virginia.  She holds a Ph.D. in History, Iranian Studies from the University of St. Andrews and a M.A. in Security Studies from the National Defense University.

Her upcoming book, "Soft War: Media, Ideology, and the Legitimation of Power in Iran" is a case study of media and hegemony in the modern state.  To continue reading about Emily,  click here.

All things are ready, if our minds be so.

William Shakespeare



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