THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA DURING THE PROTESTS IN IRAN. A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD?
28 October 2022 /
Iran, same arena with different patterns.
On September 14th, the entire world witnessed the awakening of dissent and discontent in Iran after the confirmed death of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini, arrested by the Morality Police -also known as Guidance Patrol- in Tehran, Iran, and tortured to death for three days for wearing the hijab incorrectly. Both the intensity of the protests and their message deserved already enough attention, but the singularities that emerge from them may be even more striking.
On the one hand, we find the ferocity with which women are leading the protests in the streets, directly facing the police and military and calling on their leaders – all men – for change. On the other hand, we see how young people have also taken over a space for dissidence, who from the schools and the streets have played a major role to the critical voice against the regime. Finally, there is a third peculiarity that has taken shape in a disruptive way regarding previous protests within the country, the surrounding region, or even the world; in the following lines we will attempt to demonstrate the role played by social media during the protests, as well as the several scenarios that unfold within them.
Social media as a weapon of protest.
The first scenario that comes to mind when we talk about social media and revolutions is their use as a tool within protests. In Iran they have been used as a channel to report the atrocities committed by the security forces serving the regime, becoming a loudspeaker both inside and outside the country and consequently leading to all sorts of reactions at the international and local levels. This practice is due not only as a result of the strong censorship that the country experiences that cuts off all messages against the official guidelines, but it also germinates as an anti-propaganda tool, becoming the last democratic stronghold of public debate.
However, this is where the singularities in Iran begin in regard to previous cases, as the regime has also been able to use social media for its own goals. A first case is found in the kind of platforms such as Twitter, Telegram, etc that have been blocked. While it is true that all of these have suffered censorship and cuts, there have been two that have remained relatively intact, especially Instagram.
But why Instagram? To help us understand why this platform has remained relatively free, we should consider potential interests the regime might have in it. On the one hand, we find the official accounts serving the State that send messages full of disinformation and fighting back the revolutionary movement. On the other hand, there are several celebrities, influencers and instagrammers who, by gathering millions of followers, have begun to share – either voluntarily or under threat – propaganda messages supporting the regime.
Additional data from Instagram, reveals that the platform is the most used within the whole country, reaching up to 80% before the cuts with respect to the other remaining applications. This means that eight out of ten consumers of this sort of platform use Instagram. This information translates into a large amount of money received by the State, including the high number of jobs it generates, which has led Iran to introduce a new type of tax for the use of this network. Continuing with this platform, a quite revealing aspect of it that enables us to understand why it has not suffered so much censorship, is because the application itself started to delete content in terms of hashtags, photos and messages with slogans such as “death to the dictator”, something that has been criticised by dissidence both inside and outside the country, as people consider that Instagram has positioned itself on the oppressive side instead of that of the oppressed. While there is no way to prove the veracity of these statements and accusations, nevertheless, it is true that it would let us explain, – among other reasons – why the regime has been so permissive with said platform.
Moreover, the benefits that Iran enjoys from the instrumentalization of social media are not limited to an economic and propagandist scope as we have just seen, but there is also a strategic dimension to it.
With regard to Twitter, it immediately suffered severe restrictions back in 2009 during the so-called Twitter Revolution, where this platform was criminalised by the Iranian authorities and quickly blocked. This exercise of censorship would be repeated again in the ongoing protests, but not before being used by the State to spread its own propaganda. However, beyond these expected scenarios, we find others which are worth mentioning but were not seen in 2009 nor 2019, due to the sophistication with which the regime has learned to use social media.
Firstly, we can observe the use of fake accounts commonly designated as bots and trolls, which are fake profiles created from inside or outside the country – in the case of Iran we see an epicenter in Albania – that are not controlled by people but by a software programmed to repeatedly and systematically spread content, which is usually false, and in this case also propagandistic. Examples are found in relation to hashtags with the name Amini. Secondly, Iran began to spread false messages as a decoy through these accounts about non-existent demonstrations, meetings and gatherings to see which profiles adhered to them to be tracked down and arrest the dissidents.
Another example of this kind of tracking strategy can be found in how the State has monopolised the country’s three main internet providers to geolocate the position of customers who attended demonstrations and whose phone was turn on during the demonstrations by using satellites. This sophistication of one of the most powerful intelligence services in the world comes after the 2019 protests, in which for days there were total internet outages throughout the country, leading to millionaire losses due to banking interruptions, for example. Considering further scenarios where this situation could repeat, the regime has been reinforced not only at the legal level with laws that criminalise the use of this technology but also at the technological level as we have just seen.
However, there is a third platform left out of state control, called Clubhouse, which consists of a public and democratic space for online debate that gathers anonymous participants who can discuss – with audio and video – in sessions of up to ten hours issues that concerns them, allowing some sort of freedom of speech by using anti-tracking software.
Voices against an uncertain future.
Lastly, we need to highlight an anecdotal episode that has been repeated in these protests and whose mention keeps on being ignored within the mainstream media. It concerns the use of the flag prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution that laid the foundation for the theocratic regime we all know today. The use of this flag is severely punished in Iran as it refers to the previous regime overthrown after the Ayatollah’s revolution. Yet, the flag has been appearing in the media due to the demonstrations, something that also happened for example during the 2022-2021 protests in Belarus where we saw demonstrators using the national flag prior to the referendum in 1995 as a strong message against Lukashenko and the soviet inheritance .
As we can conclude, there are several voices raising against the regime and demanding a change in the country through different strategies, where women have been the first to show their discontent with a system that oppresses them. Students are the second group that has stood out the most within these protests, and it is possible these two political actors have shaped the protests through the use of social media, which means for women their last democratic forum to talk about the issues they care about, and for the youngest – Generation Z and millennials – their most characteristic feature.
Finally, there are many significant elements to take into account when approaching the issue of social media during the protests in Iran. Although they have helped to democratise the public spheres allowing a minimum of debate and freedom of speech, they have also been used at the journalistic level to disseminate content that did not pass the censorship filters and finally, in an organisational way to convene and coordinate protesters. However, this double-edged sword shows us that regarding other cases either within the country or the region, the regime has been able to seize these spaces and use them for its own goals, even following strategies similar to those of the dissidents. At this peak of the protests, and after considering the previous discussion on the use of social media during the protests in Iran, we can only wait for time to show how these ongoing events will end up.