Iranians on #SocialMedia

By Holly Dagres

Introduction

“What’s your problem?” a high-school student with platinum blonde hair sticking out of her headscarf barks to her teacher. The scene is from an Instagram satire video comparing Iranian youth of the 1980s—when students dressed much more conservatively and feared their teachers—to the present day.1HM, Mary (@mary__hm), “Based off the memory of my aunt’s school. My heart bleeds for the generation of the [1980s] and some of the [1990s]. Lucky those who were born with little (body) hair. What do you think the next generation be like? *face with cold sweat*,” Instagram, April 28, 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/BwztQnrgXIb/. So, why does this matter? This video is emblematic of how Iranian netizens are using information and communications technology (ICT), as well as the creativity with which they are pushing to expand economic, cultural, and political boundaries under the Islamic Republic of Iran.2Larry Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” Journal of Democracy 21, 3, July 2010, 70.

While humor and satire have always been part of Iranian culture, the advent of the Digital Age—the use of social media and messaging apps specifically—has shaped Iranians’ lives in ways the leadership of the Islamic Republic could never have predicted. This report will explore the social media habits of Iranians and how the clerical establishment is repressing the online space.

Social media numbers and uses

Iran has a population of eighty-three million, making it the nineteenth most populous country globally, and the third most populous in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after Turkey and Egypt.3“Total Population of Islamic Republic of Iran,” World Bank, accessed June 1, 2021, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?most_recent_value_desc=false&locations=IR. With their country internationally isolated for four decades, Iranians have had to rely on satellite dishes, which are technically illegal but widely used, and the Internet, which is heavily censored, to connect with the world. Iranian Internet users are said to number 57.4 million, though some experts believe the number is even higher.4“Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns,” ARTICLE19, September 2020, 13, https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/TTN-report-2020.pdf.

According to a 2017 study from the government-funded Statistical Center of Iran (SCI), at least 73 percent of Iranian households have Internet access—80 percent of urban households have Internet, as do 57 percent of rural ones. Iranians use the Internet primarily to access social media (70.5 percent); download games, movies, and music (55 percent); and conduct online searches (36 percent).5“Information Technology Indicators Will Be Completed,” Statistical Center of Iran, July 14, 2021, https://www.amar.org.ir/news/ArticleType/ArticleView/ArticleID/15694. Because the SCI has not updated its study since 2017, Internet access is assumed to be even greater, especially as there has been an increase in Internet bandwidth, penetration, and speeds over the past few years as part of the National Information Network (NIN)—a domestic or “halal” Internet that is separate from the international Internet. (This will be discussed in more detail later.)6“Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns.” It’s also noteworthy that mobile Internet is considered to have the most connections, with active mobile Internet subscribers per one hundred people at 105 percent in November 2021.7“ICT Development in the Provinces,” Official Portal of Measuring Information Society of Iran, accessed November 17, 2021, https://mis.ito.gov.ir/ictindex/provinceindex. That number was just 72.5 percent in February 2020.8“70 Percent of Iranian Households Have Access to Internet,” Mehr News Agency, February 25, 2020, https://www.mehrnews.com/news/4862783/. According to an August 2021 report by state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Iran’s mobile phone penetration rate is more than 155 percent—partly because some Iranians own more than one cell phone. Additionally, the use of cell phones and mobile Internet has increased sharply in the past year and a half due to the pandemic.9“The Penetration Rate of Mobile Internet in Iran has Reached 97 Percent,” Deutsche Welle Persian, August 5, 2021, https://p.dw.com/p/3yaAt.

February 2021 polling data from the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) reported that 73.6 percent of Iranians over eighteen years of age use social media and messaging apps.

There are no clear statistics on the number of Iranian netizens. However, February 2021 polling data from the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) reported that 73.6 percent of Iranians over eighteen years of age use social media and messaging apps. Popular international social media platforms—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—are blocked, but Iranians have access to them via circumvention tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy services. Of total users, 64.1 percent use WhatsApp, a messaging app; 45.3 percent use Instagram, a photo-sharing app; 36.3 percent use Telegram, a messaging app; 3.3 percent use Facebook, a social networking site; 2 percent use Twitter, a microblogging site; 0.3 percent use LinkedIn, a professional networking website; and 0.3 percent use TikTok, a video-sharing app.10“73.6 Percent of People over the Age of 18 in the Country Currently Use Social Media/WhatsApp Messenger Ranks First,” Iranian Student Polling Agency (ISPA), February 22, 2021, http://ispa.ir/Default/Details/fa/2282.

Iranian football legend Ali Daei’s official Instagram account.

State-run Fars News Agency, which is closely tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in December 2020 reported some interesting numbers regarding Iranian social media and messaging app use from the Beta Research Center (BRC)—without providing the report’s details, including its methodology. The BRC, an Iranian organization that analyzes social media and big data, reports that Persian-language Telegram channels post five hundred million posts a year from forty-nine million Iranian users—despite a ban on the messaging app since 2018. The BRC also claims that more than forty-eight million Iranian Instagram users publish one billion content posts annually.11It’s worth noting that on Cafe Bazaar, an Iranian app store, Instagram has been downloaded more than twenty-seven million times alone as of December 15, 2021. See: https://cafebazaar.ir/app/com.instagram.android?l=en. In addition, the BRC reports that there are fifty Persian-language Instagram accounts with more than three million followers, and more than six hundred accounts with more than one million followers. A quick search of prominent domestic figures in Iranian society—politics, arts and culture, and sports—seems to validate some of that information. For example, prominent actress Taraneh Alidoosti (@taraneh_alidoosti) has seven million followers; musician Mohsen Chavoshi (@mohsenchavoshi) has 4 million followers; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (@khamenei_ir) has 4.5 million; and football legend Ali Daei (@alidaei) has 7.7 million followers.12Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021.

The BRC also claims that two million Iranian Twitter users tweet about five hundred million tweets annually, with two hundred million retweets and 1.5 billion likes—notable figures given that this social media platform is blocked.13“Number of Persian Language Users in Telegram, Instagram and Twitter,” Fars News Agency, December 16, 2020, https://www.farsnews.ir/news/13990923000263/تعداد-کاربران-فارسی-زبان-در-تلگرام-اینستاگرام-و-توئیتر. The information provided by the BRC has been questioned by fact-checking website FactNameh, which highlights that the report cites domestic messaging apps like Soroush and Bale as having twelve and 7.5 million users, while some experts claim the numbers are much smaller.14“Are 90 Percent of Iran-Related Accounts on Twitter Trolls and Invalid?” FactNameh, April 17, 2021, https://factnameh.com/fact-checks/2021-04-17-iran-inauthentic-twitter.html. The BRC figures contrast starkly with Iranian app stores Cafe Bazaar and Myket, where Soroush and Bale have been downloaded a total of three million and 1.9 million times, respectively.15Soroush and Bale messaging apps on Cafe Bazaar, accessed December 15, 2021, https://cafebazaar.ir/app/mobi.mmdt.ottplus?l=en and https://cafebazaar.ir/app/ir.nasim?l=en. Soroush and Bale on Myket, accessed December 15, 2021, https://myket.ir/app/mobi.mmdt.ottplus and https://myket.ir/app/ir.nasim. In September 2021, the SCI reported that there was a 12 percent increase in the number of Iranians using social media over the past three years—65 percent of those are above the age of fifteen. According to the SCI, 68 percent of Iranians over fifteen use Instagram, and 88 percent use WhatsApp.16“In Year 1399, 65 Percent of People Aged 15 and over Were Members of at Least on Social Network,” Statistical Center of Iran, September 15, 2021, https://www.amar.org.ir/news/ID/15819. The report also noted that forty-five million Iranians use Telegram and send fifteen billion messages on the app daily—despite it being blocked for the past four years.17“Iranians Exchange ‘15 Billion’ Telegram Messages Daily,” Radio Farda, September 18, 2021, https://www.radiofarda.com/a/telegram-filter-iran/31466401.html. These figures profoundly contrast with the aforementioned BRC report.

Iranian netizens, like netizens elsewhere, use social media in a variety of ways, including for commerce, entertainment, and political and cultural pursuits. Many of the examples in this report are derived from Instagram, the most popular social media platform among Iranians and one that remains unblocked by the regime—for now. 

Commercial, cultural, and entertainment social media

Iranian Instagram influencers, just like those in the West, use their accounts for sponsorships, marketing products, and other advertisements. Food influencers such as Farhad Paz (@FarhadPaz), who has 1.6 million followers, try out restaurants that serve everything from quadruple-decker hamburgers with injectable cheese to Iranian dishes like tahchin (chicken saffron rice cake). Paz has a YouTube channel with more than nineteen thousand subscribers, and one video has received more than three hundred and ninety-five thousand views, though much of his revenue and viewership come from Instagram.18Note: Farhad Paz’s YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFpwBqEbvOKYeM7PPSt3yAg/featured. Numbers for Instagram account and YouTube page accessed on December 15, 2021. It’s unclear how food influencers like Paz make an income, but if it’s similar to Western content creators, some are likely offering Instagram posts in exchange for free meals at restaurants and/or charging for content.19Andrea Chang and Jenn Harris, “From Kim Kardashian’s Bestie to Dining Deity: The Rise of Foodgod,” Los Angeles Times, January 18, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/food/la-fo-foodgod-jonathan-cheban-20190118-htmlstory.html. Another food influencer, Mahdis Food (@Mahdis_Food), who has eight hundred and thirty-one thousand followers, posts personalized video advertisements—such as for laser hair removal and hair extensions—between recipe videos for fried chicken and Iranian dishes like mirzeh ghasemi (grilled eggplant dip). Sometimes couples work together as content creators. Mohamaad and Fatemeh (@mohamaad_vf and @1fatemeh__arjmandi), who have a combined following of almost 3 million, post spoof videos and personalized video advertisements for everything from video game stores that sell Sony PlayStation 5s to saffron brands. 

Video-game streaming is also a means of generating income for Iranian influencers. With few extracurricular activities available, Iranian youth spend a lot of time online. Gaming is a popular pastime, whether on a personal computer or cell phone, or at game centers, where youth can play by the hour on gaming consoles or computers. There are thirty-two million gamers in Iran, according to a September 2020 report by the Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation.20Amir Havasi, “‘We Just Want to Play’: Iran Gamers Battle Reality of US Sanctions,” Yahoo! News, February 17, 2021, https://sg.news.yahoo.com/just-want-play-iran-gamers-035002121.html.

There has reportedly been an increase in Persian-language gaming content on various social media platforms, such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, in the past several years—even though some platforms are blocked. Iranian gamers have also taken to video-game livestreaming on Aparat (Iran’s version of YouTube) and Amazon-owned Twitch, albeit via circumvention tools. Some Iranian gamers have managed to turn their gaming into lucrative careers. For example, Melina Beleyk (@melinabeleyk), who has more than ninety-three thousand followers on Instagram, is a gaming-video creator. Beleyk livestreams on Aparat and has more than one hundred and twenty-five thousand views and sixty-two thousand subscribers on her channel, where she livestreams gaming sessions for popular first-person-shooter video games such as Call of Duty, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Zula.21Note: Melina Beleyk’s Aparat livestreaming page: https://www.aparat.com/beleyk/live. As of July, Beleyk has deleted many videos posted on her Instagram and Aparat page, though she continues to livestream. Numbers for Instagram account and Aparat page accessed on December 15, 2021. Beleyk receives donations through Reymit, an Iran-based online sponsorship service for content creators. Another gaming-content creator account is Digipubg (@digipubg), the username is a play on PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ acronym (PUBG), which has more than sixty-five thousand followers and is sponsored by Digikala (Iran’s equivalent of Amazon). Some gamers are also able to turn streaming into a lucrative business via donations through Aparat. Interestingly, at least one Iranian gamer allegedly decided to pursue a professional gaming career abroad thanks to the generous donations of his viewers and followers—or so a Redditor claims.22theGAMERintheRYE, “My Iranian Friend Who Streams Almost Everyday on Twitch Is Unreachable due to the Nationwide Internet Access Restriction,” Reddit, November 17, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/iran/comments/dxuxbb/my_iranian_friend_who_streams_almost_everyday_on/.

Melina Beleyk livestreaming PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

There are countless Persian-language articles about generating revenue on Instagram. Each influencer appears to set their own rate, though Tehran-based social media agency Neshanet speculated that they can make up to 6 billion rials (nearly $20,000).23“How Much Are Instagram Influencers Earning?” Neshanet Social Media Agency, accessed March 8, 2021, https://neshanet.com/mag/instagram-influencers-earning. Instagram video creator Mehrdad Habibi (@realmehrdad), who has four hundred and seventy-two thousand followers, said in 2019: “On average, every 100,000 followers earns about 5[0] to 6[0] million [rials] ($164 to $197) per month for the account holder.”24Shima Sharabi, “In a Concerted Move, Instagram Celebrities Became Veiled,” IranWire, January 31, 2019, https://iranwire.com/fa/features/29591; Note: Conversion rate was different in 2019. I’m applying conversion rate of 303,800 rials per Bonbast website from December 15, 2021. Content creator Tina Entezari, known for her thickly tattooed eyebrows and injected lips, has two accounts (@tina_entezari1 and @tinaa.entezar), totaling four hundred and twenty-six thousand followers. Entezari has disclosed that she charges for various services: 5.5 million rials ($18) for a video clip on both her pages; 2.5 million rials ($8) for a happy-birthday post; and 3 million rials ($10) for an Instagram story. For 10 million rials ($32), Entezari offers three posts on each of her pages and a story every twenty-four hours over the course of a week.25Tina Entezari, message to author, September 8, 2021; Note: Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021. I’m applying conversion rate of 303,800 rials per Bonbast website from December 15, 2021.

There are countless Persian-language articles about generating revenue on Instagram. Each influencer appears to set their own rate, though Tehran-based social media agency Neshanet speculated that they can make up to 6 billion rials (nearly $20,000).

In September 2020, the Young Journalists Club (YJC) news agency interviewed an unnamed Iranian advertisement agency that works closely with celebrities and influencers. According to the ad agency, actors Shabnam Gholikhani (@shabnamgholikhani) and Pouria Poursorkh (@pouriapoursorkh), who have 1.3 and 3.1 million followers, respectively, are the highest-paid Iranian celebrities on Instagram for advertisements.26Note: Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021. YJC reported that they make 300 million rials ($984) per Instagram post and roughly 50 million rials ($164) for an Instagram story.27“Astronomical Revenue of Instagram Influencers through Advertising; Posting a Story, 25 Million,” Young Journalists Club, September 21, 2020, https://www.yjc.news/fa/news/7499014/; Note: conversion rate was different in 2020. I’m applying conversion rate of 303,800 rials per Bonbast website from December 15, 2021. The report also included top-grossing content creators such as Mohammad Amin Karimpor (@mohamadaminkarimpor) and Mohsen Easy (@iz.mohsen), who have 4.7 million and 3.6 million followers, respectively. Karimpor, who is known for video parodies and sometimes appears in television commercials, reportedly has a monthly income between 2 and 3 billion rials (roughly $6,583 and $9,740), while Easy, who is known for dubbing and sports video parodies, reportedly has a monthly income between 1.5 and 2.5 billion rials ($4,937 and $8,229).28Ibid. The numbers are particularly impressive given the dire situation of the Iranian economy, with historically high inflation and a national currency that has lost 80 percent of its worth since 2018.29Golnar Motevalli, “Four Years of Crisis: Charting Iran’s Economy under Trump,” Bloomberg, January 24, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-24/four-years-of-crisis-charting-iran-s-economy-under-trump. To put these Instagram influencers’ incomes into perspective, the average declared annual income is 764,746,000 rials ($2,517) for an urban household, and 420,470,000 rials ($1,384) for a rural household for the 1399 Iranian calendar year (March 2020–March 2021), according to government-funded SCI—which means the real figures might be different.30“Details of Household Income and Expenditure in 1399, the Income of Urban Households Doubled that of Rural Households,” Tasnim News Agency, July 21, 2021, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1400/04/30/2541753/; Note: conversion rate was different in 2020. I’m applying conversion rate of 303,800 rials per Bonbast website from December 15, 2021.

While some Iranians use Instagram as paid advertisement space, others use it as free promotional space for services including dentistry, beauty salons, and underground tattoo parlors.31Note: Tattoo parlors are underground because tattoo artists are often arrested or fined for their work. While there is no law prohibiting tattoo artistry, authorities view tattoos as part of Western imperialism, and the art can potentially be labeled as obscene. Getting a permit for a tattoo parlor would likely be impossible as well. Iran’s first female car detailer, Maryam Roohani (@missdetailer), who has more than fifty-six thousand followers, uses her account to highlight her detailing of luxury vehicles like BMWs and Maseratis, with rap and reggaetón music playing in the background. Clothing, jewelry, and home-goods vendors post their designs and products, and provide contact information in their bios or ask for direct messages only. Choobrakht (@choob_rakht), which has one hundred and sixty-three thousand followers, posts Boho-style outfits that can be ordered via WhatsApp. Another popular clothing page is ibolak (@ibolak), which has 1.4 million followers, while headscarf vendor Monaco Scarf (@monaco_scarf), which has one hundred and sixty thousand followers, uses its Instagram page for ad space and sells clothing via its website. Then there are musicians like Helal Gheshm (@helalqeshm), who has one hundred and five thousand followers, who use Instagram to promote their music. Gheshm often posts videos of himself playing the oud and singing in various locations on his home island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf.32Note: Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021.

(Left) A parody video ad for Mahmood Jewelry by Mohsen Eazy (logo seen in bottom right). Eazy reportedly makes between $4,937 – $8,229 a month; (Right) Helal Gheshm playing a song about Iran with his oud by the Persian Gulf shoreline on Qeshm Island.

Many restaurants and cafes also rely on Instagram. For example, Vitrine Kitchen (@VitrineKitchen), which has more than ninety-five thousand followers, posts photos of its pizza and cheesecakes from its Tehran restaurant. Interestingly, many restaurants don’t have websites, and rely on Instagram direct messages for reservations. This is not only because Instagram is free, but Iranians, out of habit, search on the app for restaurants and rely on food influencers for recommendations. The Tehran National Food Industry School (@Melli_Tehran), which has more than fifty-four thousand followers, uses Instagram to advertise culinary classes, from making pastries to artsy watermelon carvings. Chef Mousavi (@mosavi_pastrychef), who has more than thirty-six thousand followers, uses Instagram for dessert tutorials, while Farzane Pannahi (@farzane.pannahi), who has two hundred and forty-five thousand followers, is a mother who gives “general tips and cooking lessons,” including how to make dalgona candy featured in the K-drama series Squid Game. Then there are food companies like Maya Kando (@mayakando), which has more than ninety-eight thousand followers and promotes “the best honey in Iran.”33Ibid.

Farzane Pannahi gives a dalgona candy tutorial on her Instagram account.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Iranians have been using social media even more readily, and, as a result, businesses have also multiplied online. More than 80 percent of online purchases in Iran are on messaging and social media apps, especially Telegram and Instagram.34“How Many Iranian Users Are on Social Media Networks?” ITiran, February 21, 2021, https://itiran.com/?p=96272. Instagram has replaced Telegram due to the ban on the latter, and wider recognition of Instagram’s potential. In 2018, Babak and his wife Ellie started Elit Kala (@Elit_Kala), an Instagram kitchenware page with more than sixty-four thousand followers. The Mashhad-based couple travel to Tehran, where they purchase kitchenware to sell online. Babak said in October 2019, “We can’t imagine having a job at a company and getting paid less than a third of what we make today. I had a job at a pharmacy, but I don’t work there anymore for that reason.”35Fariba Parsa, Forget Telegram: Iranians Are Using Instagram to Shop, Atlantic Council, October 17, 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/forget-telegram-iranians-are-using-instagram-to-shop/; Note: Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021.

Instagram gives Iranian women, who sometimes cannot work outside the home due to traditions or family obligations, the opportunity to start a business from home.

It’s important to mention that Instagram businesses also empower Iranian women. For example, Tehran-based businesswoman Aida Pooryanasab works with single mothers and homemakers, often from working classes. Instagram gives Iranian women, who sometimes cannot work outside the home due to traditions or family obligations, the opportunity to start a business from home. “These women are not only earning money—they also feel like they are existing,” explains Pooryanasab. “Instagram-based businesses let these women feel good about their economic independence.”36Megha Rajagopalan and Soudeh Rad, “Meet the Iranian Influencers Whose Livelihoods Will Be Stripped Away by a Ban on Instagram,” BuzzFeed News, January 29, 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/meghara/iran-instagram-ban-women-influencers. As stated in a September 2021 report by the SCI, 83 percent of online businesses—in addition to providing their goods and services on a website—also use Instagram, Telegram, and WhatsApp for sales. The report noted that eleven million Iranian jobs depend on social media networks like Instagram.37“Bad News for 11 Million Social Media Users,” Tejarat News, September 25, 2021, https://tejaratnews.com/startup/تاثیر-طرح-صیانت-بر-اشتغال.

…eleven million Iranian jobs depend on social media networks like Instagram.

Some Iranians use social media purely or initially to produce entertaining content—perhaps with the long-term goal of monetizing their account. For example, Kokab Akhtari (@Kokab_Akhtari) is a chador-clad content creator with more than twenty-one thousand followers. She posts humorous takes on popular Western and Iranian songs, such as moonwalking across her living room to “Billy Jean” by Michael Jackson or a humorous rendition of “Tehran Tokyo” by diaspora pop singer Sasy Mankan.38Note: Kokab Akhtari’s account has been removed as of September 26, 2021. It is unclear what happened, though this new account alleges the old one was deleted: https://www.instagram.com/kokab_akhtaari/. Video creator Ryan the Gray (@ryan_the_gray), who has one hundred and three thousand followers, posts memes and deep fakes, related to Game of Thrones—as evidenced by his username—as well as Iranian and US politics, such as former President Hassan Rouhani “meeting” his US counterpart Joe Biden. Ryan is responsible for the viral “Cat Vibing to Ievan Polkka” post-2020 US presidential election video featuring Biden and Donald Trump, which accumulated ten million views on YouTube. There are tons of content of Iranians posting comedic takes on Iranian social issues—family, school, and marriage—such as self-described actress and comedian Mary Hm (@mary_hm), who has 2.4 million followers. Saeed Shahba (@saeedshahba), who has one hundred and thirty-six thousand followers, dubs Hollywood movies, football stars, and Iranian politicians, including Rouhani meeting with his successor, Ebrahim Raisi.39Note: Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021.

“Biden Sings Trump Dances Cat Vibes (Ievan Polkka) Deepfake” video by Ryan the Gray (YouTube username: RyanBigNose).

Iranian shepherd Mohammad has an Instagram account named after his late dogs, Salar and Polad (@salarpolad), with more than thirty-two thousand followers. The posts capture his village life in northeastern Iran. Mohammad was allegedly gifted his cell phone by his brother, who bought it for him with his first paycheck after starting a new job once he had completed his PhD in Tehran.40“Iranian Shepherd with over 14,000 Followers on Instagram,” Tehran Times, April 17, 2015, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/246173/Iranian-shepherd-with-over-14-000-followers-on-Instagram. Dour Nist (@dour_nist), which has more than eighty-three thousand followers, uses its Instagram account to publish short documentaries about Iranian heritage. As its bio reads, “Iran with all its beauties is ‘never far away’”—a play on its account name. Pesar Ame (@pesarame), which has more than nineteen thousand followers, reposts nostalgic clips of a puppet with the same name from the Kolah Ghermezi series that has been on state television for almost three decades. Others use social media to showcase their art, animations, and designs. Ani-mation Studio (@ani_mationstudio) has six hundred and forty thousand followers and produces black-and-white stick-figure cartoons. Lately, its videos include advertisements for a digital-currency news website and a credit-card company. Social media are also places for fan pages of singers and bands—be they Iranian, Western, or Korean, like K-pop band BTS—and for popular sitcoms such as the adult animated show Rick and Morty.41Note: For BTS and Rick and Morty fan pages, see: https://www.instagram.com/_bts.iran_/ and https://www.instagram.com/rickandmorty.iri/, accessed July 22, 2021. Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021. 

There are also health and wellness accounts like End the Stigma (@end_the_stigma), which has more than forty-eight thousand followers and focuses on mental health. Its bio reads in Persian: “Mental disorders are painful enough for patients, we should not make the situation more difficult for them by stigmatizing them. Let’s talk about mental disorders.” Bahareh Ghafari (@ghafaridiet), who has 2.5 million followers, is a nutritionist who posts about health and nutrition with permission of the Ministry of Health, according to her bio.42Note: It’s unclear why the nutritionist’s bio includes a disclaimer, but it may be because she could get into trouble with the Ministry of Health. Or, it could be to give herself more credibility. Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021. 

Sociopolitical social media

Social media “is also ‘accountability technology,’ in that it provides efficient and powerful tools for transparency and monitoring” of the government, says scholar and democracy expert Larry Diamond. Cell phones and social media “create new possibilities for exposing and challenging abuses of power.”43Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” 76. Social media played a prominent role in amplifying footage taken by Iranian citizen journalists of bloody crackdowns by security forces after the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement. Countless videos of demonstrations across various cities were uploaded to YouTube and amplified on Facebook and Twitter, including the killing of Neda Agha Soltan, whose image became the de facto face of the movement.44Contrary to popular belief, most of the social media pertaining to the protests were amplified by those living in the West, including diaspora Iranians. 

Similar footage was uploaded and shared on messaging apps and social media during nationwide December 2017–January 2018 protests in which security forces killed at least twenty-one and arrested four thousand and nine hundred; November 2019 protests in which security forces arrested and killed thousands; and many smaller-scale demonstrations, such as a 2018 trucker strike and, more recently, July 2021 protests sparked by water shortages in southwestern Khuzestan Province, in which at least eleven protesters and bystanders were killed and at least three hundred were arrested; and the November 2021 Isfahan farmers protests, in which three hundred were arrested.45Michael Lipin, “Iranian Truck Drivers Launch Strike in Seven Provinces,” VOA News, May 22, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/a/iran-truck-drivers-strike/4405564.html; Babak Dehghanpisheh, “Water Crisis Spurs Protests in Iran,” Reuters, March 29, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-security-water-crisis-idUSKBN1H51A5; “World Report 2019: Rights Trends in Iran,” Human Rights Watch, January 17, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/iran. 

Recognizing that Iranian citizen journalists can document rights abuses, and that social media and messaging apps can quickly mobilize masses of people, authorities have, over the years, resorted to blocking access to websites and now also resort to Internet throttling—slowing the Internet to a snail-like pace—to defeat circumvention tools. However, authorities took Internet censorship to another level when they shut down the Internet for a week—with varying levels of mass disconnections lasting one to two weeks—during the November 2019 protests (Internet shutdowns will be discussed later). As Amnesty International’s 2020 report, “A Web of Impunity: The Killings Iran’s Internet Shutdown Hid,” revealed, “authorities deliberately blocked Internet access inside Iran, hiding the true extent of the horrendous human rights violations that they were carrying out across the country.”46“Iran: Internet Deliberately Shut Down During November 2019 Killings—New Investigation,” Amnesty International, November 16, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/11/iran-internet-deliberately-shut-down-during-november-2019-killings-new-investigation-2/. It wasn’t until the Internet was back online that Iranians were able to post footage of atrocities committed by security forces, giving rights organizations and the international community the capability to document unlawful killings and abuses.

Recognizing that Iranian citizen journalists can document rights abuses, and that social media and messaging apps can quickly mobilize masses of people, authorities have, over the years, resorted to blocking access to websites and now also resort to Internet throttling—slowing the Internet to a snail-like pace—to defeat circumvention tools.

Videos posted in the aftermath of the November 2019 protests were sometimes extremely bold. A first-person Instagram video of twenty-seven-year-old Pouya Bakhtiari went viral post-mortem. The self-described “vegetarian electronic engineer” spoke of his hopes for his country, including an end to the “criminal and corrupt [Iranian] regime.” Hours after the video was taken, Bakhtiari was killed by security forces.47Golnaz Esfandiari, “Iran to Work with China to Create National Internet System,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, September 4, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-china-national-internet-system-censorship/30820857.html. Because of his video, Bakhtiari became one of the faces of the protests.48Golnaz Esfandiari, “Killed in Karaj: Peace-Loving, Vegetarian Engineer a Face for Those Slain in Iranian Protests,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, December 5, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/killed-in-karaj-peace-loving-vegetarian-engineer-a-face-for-those-slain-in-iranian-protests/30309928.html. A year later, an Instagram account known as 1500 Tasvir (@1500tasvir), which now has more than eighty-three thousand followers, was started to highlight the stories of the reportedly fifteen hundred killed—as demonstrated by its name “images of 1,500”—and amplify the voices of the families of the victims. Additionally, 1500 Tasvir, which has a Twitter account (@1500tasvir) with more than twenty-nine thousand followers, uses its platform to draw attention to other rights abuses and injustices, such as the wrongful execution of wrestler Navid Afkari in September 2020.49Note: Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021.

Mothers of slain November 2019 protesters gather at a grave site with photos of their late sons. Post by 1500tasvir reads: “Mothers of Aban”
(Aban is the Iranian calendar month in which the November 2019 protests took place).

As with the November 2019 protests, social media have been helpful for human-rights organizations documenting other rights abuses. For example, in June 2019, the head of the US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) saw a tweet about a directive by Iran’s Social Welfare Organization banning religious minorities from employment at kindergartens. “I contacted the person who had posted the tweet and asked if they could provide me with a copy of the document. They did provide it to me,” executive director Shahin Milani said. “After reviewing it and realizing that it was authentic, we published a story about the directive on our website and posted it to our social media accounts.” Persian-language media outlets picked up the story and, within days, the organization partially rescinded the directive.50Shahin Milani, email to author, September 22, 2021; “Directive by Social Welfare Organization Bans Employment of Religious Minorities in Most Child Care Centers,” IHRDC, June 2, 2019, https://iranhrdc.org/directive-by-social-welfare-organization-bans-employment-of-religious-minorities-in-most-child-care-centers/.

As with the November 2019 protests, social media have been helpful for human-rights organizations documenting other rights abuses.

Social media have also become essential tools for amplifying Iranian women who publicly protest compulsory hijab. Videos including violence by authorities and citizens arrests are shared by My Stealthy Freedom (MSF), run by New York-based activist and journalist Masih Alinejad.51“Our Story: The Photograph That Launched a Movement,” My Stealthy Freedom, accessed June 13, 2021, https://www.mystealthyfreedom.org/our-story/. The Facebook page, which started in 2014, now has one million likes, while Alinejad uses her Instagram and Twitter accounts (@AlinejadMasih), which total 6.3 million followers, to amplify MSF posts, interviews, and testimonies of relatives of those killed by the Islamic Republic.52My Stealthy Freedom, Facebook page, accessed June 13, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom; Note: Numbers for social media accounts accessed on December 15, 2021. This also includes videos of Iranian women removing white headscarves to protest compulsory hijab چهارشنبه_های_سفید# (#WhiteWednesdays). A separate hashtag not affiliated with Alinejad, دختران_خیابان_انقلاب# (#GirlsOfRevolutionStreet), refers to women who removed their headscarves while standing on an electricity box on Tehran’s Enghelab (Revolution) Street. When protester Vida Movahed was arrested in December 2017, the hashtags دختر_خیابان_انقلاب_کجاست# (“Where is the girl of Revolution Street”) and #Where_Is_She also went viral, asking the whereabouts of Movahed, whom authorities had detained.53“‘Girls of Revolution Street’ Appear in Many Other Cities,” Radio Farda, February 1, 2018, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-protest-against-hijab-veil/29011931.html.

In August 2020, dozens of Iranian women took to social media to tell their stories of sexual harassment and assault. The #MeToo movement in Iran was prompted by a video of Iranian women journalists who had shared their experiences of harassment by powerful men they had interviewed and their colleagues, so that “others do not remain silent in the face of harassment.”54Sara Zare (@sara_zare71), “This is a repetitive story, but I and other women journalists decided to talk about it this time and ask others not remain silent in the face of harassment. Sexual harassment is not just rape. Sometimes a touch, a word, a glance can deeply destroy a person’s psyche,” Twitter, August 8, 2020, 3:40 p.m., https://twitter.com/sara_zare71/status/1292108401191858177. More than one hundred Iranian men faced allegations, including internationally renowned artist Aydin Aghdashloo. Sussan Tahmasebi, an Iranian women’s-rights activist and director of FEMENA, said that social media played a “critical role” by “providing anonymity and, in turn, relative safety in a conservative society for those who wanted to speak about their experiences with sexual violence and rape.”55Sussan Tahmasebi, message to author, November 14, 2021. She adds that “social media was also a powerful tool in the hands of the women’s movement which stepped up to respond to the development by publishing accounts, providing much needed informational material, and guiding discussions to ensure substance and greater awareness.”56Ibid. As the New York Times pointed out at the time, the movement was “groundbreaking” in a conservative society “where discussing sex is culturally prohibited, sex outside marriage is illegal, and the burden of proof for victims of sexual crimes is onerous.57”Farnaz Fassihi, “A #MeToo Awakening Stirs in Iran,” New York Times, October 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/22/world/middleeast/iran-metoo-aydin-aghdashloo.html. 

Viral hashtags have also been used to draw attention to issues such as capital punishment. In July 2020, Iranians of all walks of life took to social media using اعدام_نکنید# (“Don’t Execute”) to stop the execution of three young protesters who took part in the November 2019 protests.58Farnaz Fassihi, “In Rare Surge of Online Unity, Iranians Call for Halt to Executions,” New York Times, July 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/world/middleeast/iran-protests-capital-punishment.html. There were more than 4.5 million tweets, and tens of thousands of posts on Instagram and Telegram, with the Persian hashtag—enough for Iranian officials to take note and temporarily halt the executions.59“Iran Spokesman Says ‘Stop Execution’ Hashtag Was ‘A Straightforward Demand’ By Public,” Radio Farda, July 18, 2020, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-spokesman-says-stop-execution-hashtag-was-a-straightforward-demand-by-public-/30734801.html. 

While the “Don’t Execute” campaign was successful, the same tactics failed to stop the September 2020 execution of Navid Afkari, a wrestler wrongfully accused of killing a security guard during a protest.60“Navid Afkari: Iran Executes Young Wrestler despite Global Outcry,” BBC News, September 12, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-54129949. In March 2021, an antigovernment campaign was launched on social media using #No2IslamicRepublic in English and Persian (نه_به_جمهورى_اسلامی#). The movement was announced via a statement signed by six hundred and forty Iranians inside and outside Iran. Once the campaign kicked off, there were numerous solidarity posts on social media from figures such as the father of slain protester Pouya Bakhtiari, who published a video declaring his opposition to the Islamic Republic from inside Iran. Many anonymous videos and photos were taken from inside the country, as evident by the locations, with the phrase “No to Islamic Republic” written on hands or a piece of paper.61Arash Azizi, #No2IslamicRepublic: Just a Hashtag or Much More? Atlantic Council, March 24, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/no2islamicrepublic-just-a-hashtag-or-much-more/. 

In August 2021, as the fifth wave of the coronavirus ravaged Iran due to the fast-spreading Delta variant, Iranians used #SOSIranto draw international attention to the supreme leader’s ban on Western vaccines.62Guy Davies, “Iran Facing Its Deadliest Coronavirus Surge after Banning Import on US Vaccines,” ABC News, August 12, 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/International/iran-facing-deadliest-coronavirus-surge-banning-import-us/story?id=79406699. Using the hashtag, Iranian singer Aidin Tavassoli posted on his Instagram account, which has one hundred and fifteen thousand followers (@aidin_tavassoli), his cover of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” with Persian subtitles and photos of Iran during the pandemic superimposed on his t-shirt.63Aidin Tavassoli, (@aidin_tavassoli), “Michael Jackson – They don’t really care about us. I’m not into posting negative videos and I don’t like them either. But in the past few days this song has been playing in my head,” Instagram, August 13, 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CShVxA-qP48/. The hashtag might have had an impact because, after about a week, the government appeared to reverse its decision on Western vaccines, with the caveat that it must not purchase doses produced in the United States.64“President Biden Should Offer Vaccines to the People of Iran,” Center for Human Rights in Iran, August 18, 2021, https://iranhumanrights.org/2021/08/president-biden-should-offer-vaccines-to-the-people-of-iran/. It is important to mention, however, that since Raisi took office in August 2021, vaccine use has suddenly accelerated to unprecedented numbers, also demonstrating how political infighting partly delayed the vaccine rollout campaign, as doses had been purchased months before the June 2021 presidential election.65Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Iran’s Raisi Focuses on Vaccines Not Nuclear Talks,” Financial Times, September 20, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/a331c157-3c91-4bec-9972-35716bc4788e.

(Left) Iranians of all ages covering their eyes in solidarity with farmers protests in Isfahan Province using hashtag #Isfahan_Isnt_Alone; (Right) Post by singer Aidin Tavassoli reads: “Michael Jackson – They don’t really care about us. I’m not into posting negative videos and I don’t like them either. But in the past few days this song has been playing in my head…”

In November 2021, for more than two weeks, farmers gathered in central Isfahan Province to protest water shortages due to drought exacerbated by poor environmental planning and water mismanagement. The protests had their largest gathering on November 19, 2021 in the dried-up river bed of the Zayaneh Roud River, the lifeline of the historic city. By November 25, 2021, security forces had violently crackdown on protesters.66Farnaz Fassihi, “Iran Forcefully Clamps Down on Protests Against Growing Water Shortages,” New York Times, November 26, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/26/world/middleeast/iran-protests-water-shortages.html. According to a December 2021 report by Iran Human Rights, more than 300 people were arrested with at least 40 protesters having become blind in their left or right eye after being shot by security forces.67“More than 300 Arrested and 40 Blinded in Isfahan Protest Crackdown,” Iran Human Rights, December 1, 2021, https://iranhr.net/en/articles/5000/. To show solidarity with the blinded protesters, Iranians of all ages began posting photos on social media of covering their eye with their hand and used the hashtag اصفهان_تنها_نیست# (“Isfahan is not alone”). Among those who participated were the mothers of the slain protesters from November 2019.68IranHumanRights.org (@CHRI), “Peaceful protesters suffered eye injuries after being shot by pellet guns during protests in the Iranian city of Isfahan this month. Now the moms of two youths who were killed during Iran’s 2019 protests have started a solidarity campaign. #اصفهان_تنها_نیست#IsfahanisNotAlone,” Twitter, November 30, 2021, 4:36 p.m., https://twitter.com/ICHRI/status/1465721362895544323.

Social media are also used to criticize the families of Iranian elites, particularly the children of government officials with connections, known as aghazadehs. For instance, a photo of the founder of the Islamic Republic’s great-granddaughter went viral after she was pictured with a Dolce & Gabbana handbag that costs more than $3,700.69Erin Cunningham, “Crazy-Rich Iranians Face Blowback at a Time of Sanctions and Economic Stress,” Washington Post, January 14, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/crazy-rich-iranians-face-blowback-at-a-time-of-sanctions-and-economic-stress/2019/01/13/f45bc594-ffb6-11e8-a17e-162b712e8fc2_story.html. Similarly, the great-grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ahmad Khomeini, who regularly posts photos of himself wearing Western brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Nike, has a following of nine hundred and ten thousand on his Instagram account (@ahmadkhomeini). In 2019, a post of Khomeini wearing Nike with his now-wife in a riding helmet went viral. Many Iranians online criticized his “luxurious” lifestyle, especially his wife’s “luxury horse-riding hobby.”70Golnaz Esfandiari, “Khomeini’s Great-Grandson Fends off Firestorm over ‘Luxurious’ Lifestyle,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, December 10, 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/khomeini-s-great-grandson-fends-off-firestorm-over-luxurious-lifestyle/29648424.html. In 2018, an Instagram post of the “glamorous” wedding of the son of the Iranian ambassador to Denmark and model and fashion designer Anashid Hoseini (@anashidhoseini), who has 1.1 million followers, brought much criticism at a time when twelve million Iranians couldn’t afford to get married.71Golnaz Esfandiari, “Pics of Posh Iranian Wedding Renew Criticism of Double Standards,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, August 2, 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/in-the-haute-seat-glimpse-into-lifestyles-of-iran-s-elite-kids-spurs-anger/29406785.html; Note: Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021. Photos of the aghazadehs living abroad, including in the United States, are often circulated online to highlight the hypocrisy of the clerical establishment. The images are usually of the sons and daughters partying—often with alcohol—wearing revealing and often times designer clothes and driving luxurious cars like Porsches and Maseratis.72Holly Dagres, “Prince of Persia,” Foreign Policy, February 16, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/16/prince-of-persia/; Holly Dagres, “Rich Kids of Tehran,” Al-Monitor, October 2, 2014, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2014/10/iran-tehran-rich-corruption-instagram.html. Also see examples: 1dokhtebarandaz (@1dokhtebarandaz), “The families of Americans imprisoned in Iran have written the names of the children and relatives of Iranian officials living in the United States and asked Trump to revoke the parasites’ residence visas! Fatemeh Ardeshir Larijani (Ali Larijani’s daughter) Issa Hashemi (Masoumeh Ebtekar’s daughter) and Ali Fereydoun (Hassan Rouhani’s nephew) and..,” Twitter, December 4, 2018, 8:38 a.m., https://twitter.com/1dokhtebarandaz/status/1069873591263612933; Sasan Arsalan (@SasanArsalan), “Issa Hashemi, son of Masoumeh Ebtekar (Rouhani’s advisor) and his wife ‘Maryam Tahmasebi’ live in Los Angeles in the state of California in #America. (Behind the scenes of death to America) #good_women #global_strike,” Twitter, October 19, 2018, 12:16 p.m., https://twitter.com/SasanArsalan/status/1053243588606332930.

Deep fake of hardline former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as rapper Nicki Minaj.

Iranians have also used social media for political humor and satire. In May 2018, when authorities banned the popular messaging app Telegram, there was a governmental push to have Iranians use the domestic version known as Soroush. Iranian content creators quickly resorted to humor. A parody video that went viral in Iran featured “a couple chatting on Soroush and exchanging selfies, only for an intelligence officer to edit the chats and insert his own selfie in lieu of the girlfriend’s.”73Holly Dagres, “Iranians Hesitant to Leave Telegram for Domestic Apps,” Al-Monitor, May 2, 2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2018/05/iran-telegram-soroush-ban-messaging-up-security-privacy.html. Similarly, when rumors circulated in August 2020 that former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might run in the 2021 presidential election, Iranians began to produce deep fakes of him as rapper Nicki Minaj and “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys Targaryen. Iranian social media users also took part in the 2020 US presidential election by posting cartoons and memes. Like Americans, Iranian netizens took a particular interest in the slow ballot counting in the state of Nevada, using memes like the Disney computer-animated Zootopia department of motor vehicles (DMV) sloths and even an Iranian drum recital with a fast and slow rhythm—a popular meme in the Persian-language social media sphere repurposed for an array of topics.74Holly Dagres, The US Election Was All Iranians Talked about for the Past WeekAtlantic Council, November 10, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/the-us-election-was-all-iranians-talked-about-for-the-past-week/.

In June 2021, the Iranian presidential election was an important topic for Persian-language social media. Two hashtags trended online before the June 18 vote: رای_بی_رای# (“No way I’m voting”) and رای_نمیدهم# (“I won’t vote”)—the latter created by prominent exiled activist Mahdieh Golroo—with some Iranians even posting photos of the slogan written on their hands. Many memes were posted on social media related to the election, including a scene from Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator of a hundred-meter race—in which Cohen’s character shoots his competition—to demonstrate how the presidential election was a one-horse race.75Holly Dagres (@hdagres), “Since the Guardian Council’s announcement, Iranians have been sharing gifs and videos of this scene from Sasha Baron Cohen’s ‘The Dictator.’ This version is another level,” Twitter, May 26, 2021, 3:05 p.m., https://twitter.com/hdagres/status/1397645129947680769. Interestingly, one social media topic caught the attention of the supreme leader. Some Iranian state media outlets reported that the former speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, was disqualified because his daughter, Fatemeh Larijani, lives in the United States, and numerous photos were posted online to substantiate the claim.76Omer Carmi (@CarmiOmer), “The anti-Larijani campaign is not over yet. This poster is posted by hardliners, listing members of the Larijani family who live abroad. Reminder: a few reports claimed that Larijani was disqualified since his daughter is studying in the US,” Twitter, May 25, 2021, 6:41 p.m., https://twitter.com/CarmiOmer/status/1397246433015836675. This allegedly became grounds for his disqualification by the Guardian Council, a powerful vetting body, on May 25, 2021. The uproar online about Larijani’s daughter was such a big controversy that Khamenei referred to how “some candidates were wronged” during the vetting process and “accused of untrue things that were unfortunately spread throughout the Internet too”—an indirect reference to Larijani.77Ali Khamenei (@khamenei_ir), “In the vetting process some candidates were wronged. They were accused of untrue things that were unfortunately spread throughout the internet too. Protecting people’s honor is one of the most important issues. I call on the responsible bodies to restore their honor,” Twitter, June 4, 2021, 4:39 a.m., https://Twitter.com/Khamenei_ir/Status/1400748975959986177.

“Wherever you live in Iran and the world, you can announce your decision to abstain from voting in the 2021 presidential election. #I_Won’t_Vote” Hand reads: “#I_Won’t_Vote campaign.” Photo is clearly taken in Iran due to car make and street layout.

Most high-ranking Iranian officials have social media accounts typically on Instagram, but often on Twitter or both—despite the ban on the latter. Former President Ahmadinejad—under whose administration Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were blocked—regularly tweets (@Ahmadinejad1956) political commentary in English to his more than one hundred and thirty-nine thousand followers, sometimes random remarks like wishing the late rapper Tupac Shakur a happy birthday.78Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (@Ahmadinejad1956), “Happy 50th Birthday to a legend. As Tupac would say himself ‘People die but legends live forever’ #Tupac ‘Cause any day they’ll push the button And all come in like Malcolm X or Bobby Hutton’ #WestSide,” Twitter, June 16, 2021, 7:33 p.m., https://twitter.com/Ahmadinejad1956/status/1405232180981338114. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University and well-known political analyst, has two hundred and ninety-four thousand followers on his Twitter account (@sadeghZibakalam) and 1.1 million followers on his Instagram account (@zibakalamsadegh). He shares his views on a range of issues, including the Raisi government’s handling of the Iranian nuclear file.79Sadegh Zibakalam (@zibakalamsadegh), “The one-day visit of Mr. Rafael Grossi the head of the [International] Atomic Energy Agency to Tehran and the agreements reached were able to prevent a statement issued by the [IAEA] Board of Governors against Iran…,” Instagram, September 13, 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CTxCPaeskFG/. Zibakalam also makes regular appearances on Clubhouse, which he advertises on his Instagram account. Not surprisingly, all seven qualified candidates in the June 2021 presidential election had Twitter accounts.80Ali Vaez (@AliVaez), “By my count, all 7 candidates in Iran’s elections now have Twitter accounts,” Twitter, June 3, 2021, 10:06 a.m., https://twitter.com/AliVaez/status/1400468921484984320; Note: Numbers for social media accounts accessed on December 15, 2021.

According to activist Samaneh Savadi, “Iranians get access to information [on social media] that wouldn’t be allowed on national TV or newspapers.”81Rajagopalan and Rad, “Meet the Iranian Influencers Whose Livelihoods Will Be Stripped Away by a Ban on Instagram.” It is notable that the latest ISPA report from September 2021 shows 41.4 percent of Iranians use social media and online media outlets as their main sources of news.82“How Citizens Follow the News of the Community; the Authority of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting as the Most Important Source of News Has Decreased in Recent Years,” Iranian Students Polling Agency, September 26, 2021, http://ispa.ir/Default/Details/fa/2338/. Savadi adds, “There is a big number of activists running campaigns on Instagram. It’s not just about photos.”83Rajagopalan and Rad, “Meet the Iranian Influencers Whose Livelihoods Will Be Stripped Away by a Ban on Instagram. They include Bahareh Hedayat (@bhr.hedayat), a students and women’s-rights activist with more than eight thousand five hundred followers; Hossein Ronaghi (@hosseinronaghi), a blogger and free-speech activist with more than forty-one thousand followers; Nargess Mousavi (@nargesmousavii), the daughter of the Green Movement leaders under house arrest since 2011 with one hundred and thirty-two thousand followers; and Sepide Qoliyan (@sepide_qoliyan), a journalist and women’s- and labor-rights activist with almost forty-three thousand followers. There are also anonymous accounts highlighting social and political issues—sometimes with wit—like Afshoon (@Afshoon), who has six hundred and sixty-two thousand followers on Instagram. Iranians send Afshoon videos, directly addressing her by name as they describe a motorcycle theft from a hospital by a man in a hospital gown, or the tearing down of a fan-made 2021 presidential election poster of then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.84Afshoon (@afshoon), “What is happening in Iran? *rolling on the floor laughing face*,” Instagram, August 15, https://www.instagram.com/p/CSl7YwNFry2/ (accessed August 27, 2021); Afshoon (@afshoon), “This post is two months old and I needed to post it again #NoWayI’mVoting #JavadZarif, #Zarif,” Instagram, April 26, 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/COJUjJdgJZu/. Other videos highlight outrageous comments made by Iranian officials, or socioeconomic ills like poverty, by showing a teenager sleeping on the streets of a provincial town. Afshoon has a sense of humor, evidenced by her video choices, such as one of an Iranian woman partaking in the Cardi B “WAP” dance challenge. Afshoon writes of the video, “Was this the dream of the Imam,” referring to the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.85Afshoon (@afshoon), “uh *woozy face*,” Instagram, October 18, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CGf2cTNHDrS/; Note: Numbers for Instagram accounts accessed on December 15, 2021. 

…the latest ISPA report from September 2021 shows 41.4 percent of Iranians use social media and online media outlets as their main sources of news.

Instagram is also used to highlight other underreported issues, such as the estimated twenty million anti-personnel landmines on the Iran-Iraq border during the 1980–1988 war that continue to take lives. Iran Without Landmines (@iranwithoutlandmines), which has more than ten thousand followers, uses its Instagram account to educate Iranians about landmines and demining efforts. Khiaban Tribute (@khiabantribune), which has almost fourteen thousand followers, posts political graffiti seen on the streets of Iran, typically related to the news cycle, such as the July 2021 protests in Khuzestan Province or the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Graffiti reads: “Women of Afghanistan and Iran united against the barbarism of the Taliban and clerics.”

IHRDC’s executive director sees social media as a tool of change for Iranians that has “changed the landscape tremendously.” Milani explains: “Grave human rights abuses that took place in secrecy in the past will be exposed within days or even hours now. It is inconceivable that executions in the scale of the 1988 massacre remains secret if they take place now,” referring to the 1988 prison massacre of political prisoners, in which an estimated 4,500–5,000 men and women, and possibly more, were mass executed over a period of three months.86Shahin Milani, email to author, September 22, 2021. He observes, however, that the constant breaking-news cycle and overflow of information online have also shortened the public’s attention span. Milani specifically points to the November 2019 protests, and how there was a lack of “adequate international attention,” and that Iranian officials were not held accountable for the killings. “As a result, while many Iranians saw what happened across the country, they also noticed that their plight was not making international headlines the way the murder of [Saudi dissident journalist] Jamal Khashoggi had done just a year prior,” Milani says. “One could say that social media has been empowering and disempowering at the same time.”87Ibid.

Grave human rights abuses that took place in secrecy in the past will be exposed within days or even hours now. It is inconceivable that executions in the scale of the 1988 massacre remains secret if they take place now.

Other apps making waves

Dubsmash

Video-dubbing app Dubsmash is popular in Iran, with more than fifty thousand downloads on Cafe Bazaar and four hundred thousand downloads on Myket.88See https://cafebazaar.ir/app/com.mobilemotion.dubsmash?l=en and https://myket.ir/app/com.mobilemotion.dubsmash (accessed September 1, 2021). Iranians have used Dubsmash in various ways, including making humorous videos of lip-syncing Iranian politicians’ speeches and Friday prayer sermons. In March 2021, Iranian youth used Dubsmash to lip-sync California-based singer Sasy Mankan’s hit, “Tehran Tokyo,” which featured adult-film actress Alexis Texas in its music video. Texas’ cameo caused so much controversy inside Iran that authorities threatened to sue Mankan in international court. As part of the viral nature of the song, Mankan called on his fans to submit videos for the Somayeh Challenge, reenacting or lip-syncing a part of the song. Within days of the song dropping, countless videos were posted on social media, mostly using Dubsmash. This prompted authorities to threaten that they would prosecute anyone posting Dubsmash videos.89Holly Dagres, This Iranian Pop Song Is “More Dangerous than Polio,” Atlantic Council, March 12, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/this-iranian-pop-song-is-more-dangerous-than-polio/.

A video compilation of Iranian youth using Dubsmash to lip-sync California-based singer Sasy Mankan’s hit, “Tehran Tokyo.”

TikTok

Surprisingly, Chinese-owned TikTok is filtered in Iran despite a twenty-five-year “strategic accord” between Beijing and Tehran.90“How to Get TikTok and Solve the Problem of Not Opening TikTok in Iran,” Jouya Khabar, December 16, 2020, https://jouyakhabar.ir/fa/news/1346/چگونه-وارد-تیک-تاک-شویم-و-حل-مشکل-باز-نشدن-tiktok-در-ایران. Iranians have access to the Google Play Store, but some apps are blocked by Iran, and Google bans access to other apps and services due to US sanctions. Additionally, Iranian app stores like Cafe Bazaar won’t allow TikTok, so users have to rely on other means to get access. Mahyar, an Iran-based journalist, explained, “TikTok doesn’t work if you have an Iranian SIM card in your device. As soon as you remove the SIM, the app works like a charm. This has made some users speculate that Iran-based users have been banned as per an agreement between Islamic Republic and the Chinese social media platform.”91Anonymous Iran-based journalist, text message to author, April 11, 2021. Fearing reprisal from the Iranian government, interviewee asked the author to use a pseudonym to protect their identity. TikTok reportedly has not commented on the issue despite questions from human-rights activists and journalists. For that reason, there are few statistics on Iranian TikTok users—with the exception of the aforementioned ISPA report—though Mahyar believes the number is in the thousands.92Ibid. A simple hashtag search with words like ایران# (“Iran”) reveals spoof videos, viral dance challenges, and sometimes scenes from a holy shrine. Some of the videos are copied onto video-sharing websites like YouTube and Aparat, and even Instagram. 

Surprisingly, Chinese-owned TikTok is filtered in Iran despite a twenty-five-year “strategic accord” between Beijing and Tehran.

Clubhouse

In early March 2021, the audio-only app Clubhouse surged in popularity among Iranians, though the number of users is unknown. At the time, Clubhouse was invite only and solely for iPhone users. An Iranian developer designed a workaround called ClubHouz, an unofficial version for Android users, which has been downloaded more than one hundred thousand times on Cafe Bazaar and forty-three thousand times on Myket.93See https://cafebazaar.ir/app/ir.miladnouri.houseclub?l=en and https://myket.ir/app/ir.miladnouri.houseclub (accessed September 1, 2021). In early May 2021, Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at Miaan Group, a rights organization focused on Internet freedom in MENA, said that while the number of downloads was increasing daily, “many Iranians simply do not trust that version and are waiting for an official version.”94Amir Rashidi, email to author, May 4, 2021. This was likely due to security concerns. On May 21, 2021, Clubhouse announced the release of an Android version of its app.95Manish Singh, “Clubhouse Finally Arrives on Android,” TechCrunch, May 9, 2021, https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/09/clubhouse-android-app-launch/. The majority of Iranians use Android phones, resulting in a massive increase in Iranian users on Clubhouse, as Mahsa Alimardani, an Iran researcher at the freedom of expression organization ARTICLE19, explained: “I know myself and many friends have seen a shift in followers from Iran since the Android version was introduced.”96Mahsa Alimardani, email to author, June 8, 2021. 

Even before the Android version was released, Iranians inside and outside Iran were counting down the Iranian new year on March 20, 2021, discussing the June 18, 2021 election, debating the twenty-five-year strategic accord with China, and sharing personal stories about depression and first loves. By early April 2021, rumored presidential candidates and high-ranking officials—such as then-Foreign Minister Zarif and then-nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi—had made appearances on Clubhouse. Some analysts believe that the clerical establishment was using Clubhouse to give the illusion of free debate inside the country ahead of the 2021 presidential election.97Holly Dagres, An Iranian Cleric, Rights Activist, and Hacker Entered a Room—on Clubhouse, Atlantic Council, March 30, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/an-iranian-cleric-rights-activist-and-hacker-entered-a-room-on-clubhouse/. 

Nevertheless, there are issues with challenging officials. For example, Iranian journalist Omid Memarian, now with Democracy with the Arab World Now (DAWN), asked a presidential candidate about the killing of protesters during the November 2019 protests. He was quickly cut off for asking the question. In other instances, officials only allow “vetted” journalists and experts to ask questions, excluding dissidents and journalists working for Western-based Persian-language media outlets such as BBC Persian and Iran International.98Sune Engel Rasmussen and Aresu Eqbali, “Iran Floods Clubhouse to Drown out Debate,” Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/irans-leadership-floods-clubhouse-to-drown-out-debate-11619705224. There have also been instances in which participants are only allowed to join the discussion and pose a question depending on whether someone is Western-dressed or wearing the hijab. For example, when Alimardani raised her hand repeatedly and was ignored in a room with conservative politicians, she changed her profile picture to a chador-clad woman and was instantly allowed to speak.99Mahsa Alimardani (@maasalan), “I was listening to a discussion on Clubhouse about justice in Iran. The director of the personal debate was right-leaning (or religious). I raised my hand several times to speak and was ignored. As soon as I changed my profile picture to a woman in a chador, I was allowed to speak. #MandatoryHejab in #Clubhouse,” Twitter, April 1, 2021, 11:51 a.m., https://twitter.com/maasalan/status/1377664841234718721.

There are exceptions. When Faezeh Hashemi—the firebrand daughter of the late former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—participated in a Clubhouse room for more than six hours on April 13, 2021, she took questions from everyone and repeatedly called on the moderators not to censor voices.100Arash Azizi, Who Is Afraid of Iran’s Faezeh Hashemi? Atlantic Council, April 20, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/who-is-afraid-of-irans-faezeh-hashemi/. Hashemi has frequently appeared on the app since, and even once declared that she believes Clubhouse has the potential to start a “national reconciliation dialogue” between groups inside and outside Iran—including opposition groups—though she didn’t elaborate.101Holly Dagres (@hdagres), “Last night, Faezeh Hashemi was on #Clubhouse again. She said the app has the potential to bring about a ‘national reconciliation dialogue’ between groups inside and outside Iran—including overthrow types. She didn’t elaborate but cited the mixed attendance of some chatrooms,” Twitter, October 1, 2021, 12:00 p.m., https://twitter.com/hdagres/status/1443984052038602752. As Rashidi noted, “[Iranians] never ever had a chance to talk to Iranian officials at 2 am in the morning such as MPs or governmental officials, and criticize their work even if you are not happy and satisfied with their answers.” Rashidi believes that “Clubhouse is creating its own culture.”102Amir Rashidi, email to author, May 4, 2021.

While the audio-only app has much potential, Alimardani clarified that Clubhouse “also has a lot of potential to be co-opted by state forces, or to be manipulated—through many of the app’s security failures—to further endanger or persecute Iranians for exercising their freedom of expression, a right with many limits within Iranian laws and the public sphere.”103Mahsa Alimardani, email to author, June 8, 2021. In July 2021, Clubhouse became no longer invite only.104Maryam Sinaiee, “Iran Police Arrest Five for Prank Video Clip Showing ‘Eggplant Rain,’” Radio Farda, March 16, 2020, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-police-arrest-five-for-prank-video-clip-showing-eggplant-rain-/30490764.html. Interestingly, Clubhouse has been blocked since April 2021, though there has been no official government acknowledgment. Still, Iranians continue to use the audio-only app on a daily basis to discuss topics like protests and the nuclear talks in Vienna although, anecdotally, numbers appear to have dwindled after the presidential election in June 2021.

How the government is fighting back

Freedom House categorizes Iran as “not free” on its Global Freedom Score (16 out of 100) and Internet Freedom Score (16 out of 100)—the lowest rank among MENA countries.105“Freedom in the World: Iran.” Since the 2009 Green Movement, the Islamic Republic views social media as a national security threat. “This seminal event realigned much of Iran’s national security forces and resources towards internet governments, policies, and laws,” wrote ARTICLE19 in its groundbreaking report, “Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns.”106“Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns,” 13. Of note was the establishment of the cyber police (FATA) in 2010 to police the Internet, and the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), a top Internet-policymaking body created by the supreme leader in 2012.107“Iran’s Cyber Police—‘Society-Based Policing’ and the Rise of Peer Surveillance,” Small Media, February 20, 2019, https://smallmedia.org.uk/news/irans-cyber-police-society-based-policing-and-the.

As a result, Iranian authorities have widespread control over 57.4 million Internet users.108“Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns,” 13. Not only have authorities blocked 35 percent of the world’s most-visited websites—including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—but they have also developed a Chinese-style “great firewall” of censorship.109“35 Percent of World’s Most Visited Websites Are Blocked in Iran,” Iran International, August 25, 2019, https://iranintl.com/en/iran/35-percent-world’s-most-visited-websites-are-blocked-iran. It is worth mentioning that while the Green Movement was a pivotal event in online censorship, as early as 2006–2007, authorities blocked the Google-owned social networking website Orkut—which Iranian users dominated—and MySpace. As academic Niki Akhavan reveals, the blocking of these two websites is telling of the Iranian government’s “awareness of social media’s rising popularity and potential for challenging the state” at the time.110Niki Akhavan, Electronic Iran: The Cultural Politics of an Online Evolution (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 86. 

Not only have authorities blocked 35 percent of the world’s most-visited websites—including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—but they have also developed a Chinese-style “great firewall” of censorship.

Numerous messaging and social media apps have come and gone over the years, including messaging app Viber, which was blocked by authorities in May 2014.111Viber Was Finally Filtered,” Entekhab News, May 14, 2014, https://www.entekhab.ir/fa/news/161368/. By 2016, the two most popular apps were Instagram and Telegram. Moderate political candidates used both to attract votes in the 2016 parliamentary and 2017 presidential elections. They were deemed threatening enough for authorities to arrest twelve administrators of reformist-leaning Telegram channels just before the 2017 election.112Amir Rashidi, Social Media Helps and Hurts Iranian Elections. Here’s How, Atlantic Council, April 2, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/social-media-helps-and-hurts-iranian-elections-heres-how/. 

Almost a decade after the Green Movement, in April 2018, authorities banned Telegram to “protect national security.”113Parisa Hafezi, “Iran’s Judiciary Bans Use of Telegram Messaging App: State TV,” Reuters, April 30, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-telegram-apps-idUSKBN1I11JM. The move was prompted by December 2017–January 2018 protests, in which Iranians in more than eighty provincial towns and cities took to the streets in what became one of the most widespread protests since the 1979 revolution. Authorities believed the popular messaging app, which reportedly had forty million users right before the ban, incited people to protest.114“Iran’s Telegram Users Back on the Rise Three Weeks after State Banned the App,” Center for Human Rights in Iran, May 22, 2018, https://www.iranhumanrights.org/2018/05/irans-telegram-users-back-on-the-rise-three-weeks-after-state-banned-the-app/. They cited the website and Telegram channel known as Amad News, which had 1.4 million subscribers and was run by France-based dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam, who used his account to expose the corruption of the clerical establishment and publish insider information due to family connections (his father was a prominent reformist cleric). Authorities alleged that Amad News helped coordinate protests, and even that it circulated a manual for Molotov cocktails.115Elian Peltier and Farnaz Fassihi, “Iran Executes Dissident Accused of Stoking Protests,” New York Times, December 12, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/12/world/europe/iran-execution-Ruhollah-Zam.html.

In 2019, the intelligence arm of the IRGC lured and kidnapped Zam from Iraq and shut down his Telegram channel. Zam was forced to confess under torture to a long list of allegations and was sentenced to death. He was executed on December 12, 2020.116“The Gameshow Host behind Violence in Iran,” IranWire, January 6, 2018, https://iranwire.com/en/features/5081; Arash Azizi, “Why Is Iran Kidnapping and Executing Dissidents?” New York Times, January 12, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/12/opinion/iran-kidnap-execute-dissidents.html.

To counter Telegram, Iran released its domestic version known as Soroush (and later other apps, including: Bale, Gap, iGap, and Rubika). The move prompted many privacy and security concerns, with some Iranians resorting to humor to highlight the Big Brother aspect of such apps.117Dagres, “Iranians Hesitant to Leave Telegram for Domestic Apps.” Three weeks after the ban of Telegram, Iranian user levels returned to their pre-filtering numbers.118“Iran’s Telegram Users Back on the Rise Three Weeks after State Banned the App.” Interestingly, a year after the Telegram ban, by April 2019, government agencies also returned to the app, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported at the time, “One reason was Telegram’s effectiveness in disseminating information during devastating floods” that hit parts of the country in March 2019.119“Iranians Return to Banned Telegram as It Proves Effective in Flood Relief,” Radio Farda, April 11, 2019, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iranians-return-to-banned-telegram-as-it-proves-effective-in-flood-relief/29874542.html. 

In January 2021, the encrypted-messaging service Signal became the most recent app to be blocked. On January 14, 2021 authorities ordered that Signal be removed from Cafe Bazaar and Myket as users around the globe, including many Iranians, migrated from WhatsApp to Signal due to privacy concerns.120Maziar Motamedi, “Iran Blocks Signal Messaging App after WhatsApp Exodus,” Al Jazeera, January 26, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/26/iran-blocks-signal-messaging-app-after-whatsapp-exodus. On January 25, 2021, Iranian users reported connection problems with the messaging app. In response, Signal tweeted, “Unable to stop registration, the IR censors are now dropping all Signal traffic. Iranian people deserve privacy. We haven’t given up.”121Signal (@signalapp), “Ever since Signal simultaneously hit #1 on the Play Store and #1 on the government’s block list, we’ve been working around censorship. Unable to stop registration, the IR censors are now dropping all Signal traffic. Iranian people deserve privacy. We haven’t given up,” Twitter, January 25, 2021, 4:58 p.m., https://twitter.com/signalapp/status/1353839763388649473. According to an Al Jazeera report, Signal was intermittently blocked during 2016 and 2017, but didn’t have a substantial Iranian user base at the time.122“Iran Blocks Signal Messaging App after WhatsApp Exodus.” 

Where blocks on applications don’t work, cybercrime laws help tighten control over Iranian netizens. Under the guise of cybercrime laws, authorities have made countless arrests over the years for Internet activities, with the help of FATA’s forty-two thousand civilian “volunteers” who police the Internet. The exact number is uncertain, although in October 2018, Iran’s cyber police claimed it had arrested some seventy-five thousand people over an eight-year period for online activities—some merely for criticizing the government.123“Freedom in the World: Iran.” The Human Rights Activists in Iran group reported that, between January 2017 and January 2021 alone, at least three hundred and thirty-two people were arrested just for their online activities; of that number, one hundred and nine were arrested for Instagram posts.124Human Rights Activists in Iran group, in an email to author, on October 7, 2021. The arrests tend to follow a familiar pattern. Instagram influencers are “harassed, arrested, and prosecuted by Iranian authorities, which activists say pressured them to ‘confess’ their alleged crimes, sometimes on state television.”125Joshua Nevett, “The Instagrammers Who Worry Iran,” BBC News, January 17, 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-55631078.

Although there are countless examples, some caught the attention of international headlines, given the preposterous nature of the charges. In 2014, six young Iranians were briefly imprisoned for posting a video of themselves dancing on Tehran rooftops and in an alleyway to Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy.” Authorities at the time described it as an “obscene video clip that offended the public morals and was released in cyberspace.”126Doug Stanglin, “Iranians Escape Lashing for Dancing in ‘Happy’ Video,” USA Today, September 19, 2014, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/09/19/iran-happy-pharrell-williams-sentenced-suspended/15879809/. The youth were handed sentences of up to one year in prison and ninety-one lashes, which were suspended for three years—in other words, the sentence wouldn’t be carried out as long as the accused didn’t reoffend. In 2016, FATA conducted a two-year “sting operation” that consisted of monitoring some three hundred Instagram accounts. At least eight people were arrested, including Instagram model Elham Arab, known for her wedding-dress shoots without hijab in full hair and makeup. The court charged the models with allegedly “promoting corruption” and “immoral and un-Islamic culture and promiscuity” and “spreading prostitution.” Arab later appeared on state television in a black chador and was forced to renounce her actions.127Shima Shahrabi, “Supermodel Says Farewell to the Islamic Republic,” IranWire, April 18, 2018, https://iranwire.com/en/features/5272. In the wake of the crackdown, Instagram model and beauty influencer Elnaz Golrokh managed to flee Iran with her Iranian model boyfriend.128Will Chalk, “An Iranian Couple Leave Their Country after Posting ‘Un-Islamic’ Photos on Instagram,” BBC News, May 18, 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-36320875. Golrokh continues to be a beauty influencer (@elnaz_golrokh) and has 4.1 million followers, but works from Dubai.

Six young Iranians were briefly imprisoned for posting a video of themselves dancing on Tehran rooftops and in an alleyway to Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy.”

Another well-known case is that of eighteen-year-old Maedeh Hojabri, who posted videos of herself dancing in her bedroom to Western and Iranian pop music on her now-suspended Instagram with six hundred thousand followers.129Rick Noack, “After Instagram Star Is Arrested over Dance Videos, Iranian Women Post Clips of Themselves Dancing,” Washington Post, July 9, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/07/09/iranian-women-are-posting-videos-of-themselves-dancing-in-support-of-arrested-instagram-star/. Hojabri was arrested in 2018 along with a number of other content creators. Her arrest prompted Reihane Taravati, one of the participants in the viral “Happy” video, to tweet: “You arrested me for being #Happy when I was 23. Now you arrest #MaedehHojabri and she is only 18! What will you do to the next generation?”130Reihane Taravati (@reihanetaravati), “You arrested me for being #Happy when I was 23. Now you arrest #MaedehHojabri and she is only 18! What will you do to the next generation,” Twitter, July 8, 2018, 6:15 a.m., https://twitter.com/reihanetaravati/status/1015917239055409152. It is worth noting that dancing is not illegal in Iran, though its Islamic Penal Code is unclear about what are considered “acts against morality.” The arrest of Hojabri prompted other Iranian women to film themselves dancing in solidarity, using the Persian hashtag رقص_جرم_نیست# (#Dancing_Isnt_A_Crime).131“Iran Women Dance in Support of Arrested Instagram Teen,” BBC News, July 9, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-44760840. 

Just weeks after Hojabri’s arrest, in July 2018, authorities in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas arrested forty-six Instagram models and photographers for allegedly posting “immoral images” on the app related to beauty salons, photography, and wedding businesses.132“Iran Arrests 46 in Fresh Crackdowns on Instagram Models,” Associated Press, July 16, 2018, https://apnews.com/article/152ed93721794571b5c8fb600c9a39e6. In January 2019, female Instagram influencers were reportedly contacted by FATA and given one week to delete photos in which they appeared without hijab, or else face account suspension.133Shima Sharabi, “In a Concerted Move, Instagram Celebrities Became Veiled,” IranWire, January 31, 2019, https://iranwire.com/fa/features/29591. They included Mahdis Food (@MahdisFood) and Tina Entezari (@tina_entezari1 and @tinaa.entezar). “Subject to the laws of my country the Islamic Republic of Iran,” is written in Persian on both of Entezari’s Instagram bios.134See https://www.instagram.com/tinaa.entezar/ and https://www.instagram.com/tina_entezari1/, accessed September 25, 2021.

In October 2019, Instagram content creator Sahar Tabar, known for her zombie/plastic-surgery-gone-wrong look, the product of digital editing and makeup, was arrested on charges of alleged “blasphemy, instigating violence, illegally acquiring property, insulting the country’s dress code, and encouraging young people to commit corruption.”135“Sahar Tabar: Iranian Instagram Star ‘Arrested for Blasphemy,’” BBC News, October 6, 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-49952543. The minor’s Instagram account has since been removed; however, her photos and videos continue to circulate on Iranian social media accounts. At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, authorities arrested five people over a viral video compilation with computer-generated eggplants raining from the sky.136“Iranian Police Arrest Five over Prank Aubergine-Rain Video,” Agence France-Presse, March 16, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/16/iranian-police-arrest-five-over-prank-aubergine-rain-video. “Due to the current coronavirus epidemic thoughts of a catastrophic end have been occupying the minds of some religious believers and the police and security bodies may have interpreted the video clips from this perspective as public security threats or insults to religious beliefs,” Radio Farda reported at the time.137Sinaiee, “Iran Police Arrest Five for Prank Video Clip Showing ‘Eggplant Rain.’”

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, authorities arrested five people over a viral video compilation with computer-generated eggplants raining from the sky.

The crackdowns on social media aren’t limited to Instagram. In December 2016, the SCC ordered Telegram channel administrators with over 5,000 subscribers to register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Within a month, more than seven hundred channels made the move. In January 2017, twenty-two administrators with reformist-aligned Telegram channels were arrested in southern Hormozgan Province, allegedly for “spreading falsehoods, disturbing public peace, creating fear and anxiety among people and spreading immoral content and unlawful propaganda.”138“Admins of 12 Reformist Telegram Channels Arrested in Iran ahead of May 2017 Election,” Center for Human Rights in Iran, March 21, 2017, https://www.iranhumanrights.org/2017/03/12-reformist-telegram-channel-admins-arrested/. Months later, in March 2017, authorities arrested the administrators of twelve reformist-aligned Telegram channels. Not only was their content deleted, but their names were changed. The crackdown may have been related to the May 2017 presidential election, as social media, particularly Telegram, played a role in boosting President Rouhani’s popularity in the 2013 election.139Ibid.

During a nationwide Internet shutdown in November 2019, investigative journalist Mohammad Mosaed tweeted in English: “Knock knock! Hello Free World! I used 42 different proxy [services] to write this! Millions of Iranians don’t have internet. Can you hear us?” He was imprisoned for that tweet for sixteen days. In February 2020, Mosaed was arrested and imprisoned for several months over his criticism of the Iranian government’s poor handling of the coronavirus. He was forced to delete his Telegram channel and Twitter account. In January 2021, Mosaed fled Iran to avoid an almost-five-year sentence and a two-year ban on social media and journalism activities on charges of allegedly “colluding against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the system.”140“Iranian Journalist Who Fled Iran to Escape Prison Sentence Arrives in the U.S.,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, August 2, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-journalist-mosaed-escape/31390003.html.

Iranian journalist Mohammad Mosaed’s now-deleted tweet (He uses a new Twitter handle (verified): @2mohammadmosaed).

Like Mosaed, many journalists and even ordinary citizens have been arrested for either their critical social media posts or reporting on the coronavirus that brought into question the government’s official narrative. For example, in March 2020, Mehdi Hajati (@MehdiHajati), a former Shiraz City Council member turned civil-rights activist, tweeted criticism of the Islamic Republic’s botched coronavirus response. He was arrested the same month and given a one-year sentence and two years of exile on charges of allegedly “spreading propaganda against the system.” At the time, Hajati’s Twitter handle was briefly not accessible (he has since fled Iran in November 2021).141“Iran Clamps Down On Reporting, Criticism About Coronavirus Epidemic,” Radio Farda,March 14, 2020, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-clamps-down-on-reporting-criticism-about-coronavirus-epidemic/30487576.html; “Mehdi Hajati, Former Representative of Shiraz City Council: I Left Iran, but I’m Not in a Safe Situation,” BBC Persian, November 9, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-59227883. Note: On November 9, 2021, Hajati tweeted that he had fled Iran. The date of the tweet was reportedly the date he was expected to start serving his one-year prison sentence. See: https://twitter.com/MehdiHajati/status/1458021552058945543. By April 2020, FATA’s “combatting online rumors” group, which was set up due to the pandemic, had arrested three thousand and six hundred people for allegedly spreading online what it described as “rumors” regarding COVID-19.142“Freedom in the World: Iran.” 

Niloufar, an influencer awaiting a prison sentence for her social media posts, explained that the government is cracking down on social media because, “it shows how things are” in Iran.

Niloufar, an influencer awaiting a prison sentence for her social media posts, explained that the government is cracking down on social media because, “it shows how things are” in Iran.143Anonymous influencer, message to author, September 10, 2021. Fearing reprisal from the Iranian government, interviewee asked the author to use a pseudonym to protect their identity. She said, “And they have less control over it, they want every image to be published from their channels so they can censor everything showing an untrue image of people living here.”144Ibid. Niloufar noted that many of her colleagues have left Iran because they are unable to work. Many of those who stay behind close their Instagram accounts. 

What Palange Irooni’s Instagram page looks like now.

Niloufar also shared that many of her friends have been asked to visit a safe house by callers using blocked or hidden phone numbers—which is typical of Iranian intelligence. When they arrive, IRGC intelligence agents ask them to hand over their phone and make them log in to their social media accounts. “They opened Instagram and asked, ‘Why did you post this? Tell us who are you connected with abroad? What channels do you watch?’ Then they say, ‘You cannot have Instagram anymore; you should be silent. And if you do this again with another account—if we catch you with another Instagram account trying to write about demonstrations or against [President Ebrahim] Raisi, we will put you in jail.’” Niloufar said that one of her friends who experienced this had only two hundred followers on Instagram.145Ibid. Several Instagram accounts that the author follows have disappeared or now have blank pages. For example, Palange Irooni (@palange_irooni), which once boasted more than 1.1 million followers and did paid advertisements for designer watch shops and diet pills, is now a blank page with fewer than three hundred followers.146Holly Dagres, “Inside the World of Social Media Advertising in Iran,” Al-Monitor, November 16, 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2017/11/iran-social-media-advertising-instagram-telegram-business.html. It is unclear what happened, but it is safe to assume that the entertaining, but often surreal, videos and photos of Iranians with too much plastic surgery and/or makeup making social commentary rubbed authorities the wrong way.

Another step Iran’s intelligence and security apparatus has taken over the years is using state-sponsored troll armies to silence dissidents. Online abuse—which includes doxing, hacking, harassment, surveillance, and threats—is weaponized to intimidate with the goal of silencing activists, journalists, and even prominent figures in the diaspora.147Simin Kargar and Adrian Rauchfleisch, “State-Aligned Trolling in Iran and the Double-Edged Affordances of Instagram,” New Media & Society 21, 7, January 24, 2019, 1508; “Online Harassment Against Women Journalists in the Iranian Diaspora,” ARTICLE19, October 19, 2021, https://www.article19.org/resources/online-harassment-against-women-journalists-in-the-iranian-diaspora/. It’s well known that women are targeted more than men and are prone to misogynistic online abuse and threats of violence. As a result of the coordinated harassment, dissidents have not only been more cautious offline, but also “more reserved about the topics they chose to publicly speak or write about.”148Ibid., 1507. In some instances, mass-reporting is used as another tactic which results in a social media account being suspended, sometimes permanently. Most recently this happened to a prominent satire Twitter account, known as Ayatollah Tanasoli (@tanasoli), whose name translates as Ayatollah “Genitals”. The account, which continues to be suspended as of writing this report, had over 200,000 followers, and used its platform to highlight human rights violations and mock the leadership of the Islamic Republic.149BBC Trending, “The satirist who mocks Iran’s ayatollahs,” BBC News, February 9, 2015, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-31164583.

While there is not enough information available on how Iran’s state-sponsored troll armies work, in March 2021, a video tutorial went viral in Iran that demonstrated how to utilize software that “adds automated inauthentic likes to a tweet.”150Mahsa Alimardani (@maasalan), “This video tutorial is going viral on Persian social media. Video demonstrates how to use a Persian software that adds automated inauthentic likes to a tweet from 21 Feb 2021. Video posted by seemingly pro-IRI account in Iran: @Ali_A_Motahari Video subtitled in English,” Twitter, 11:44 a.m., March 10, 2021, https://twitter.com/maasalan/status/1369615062139363333. In the video, the software appeared to have an antigovernment category to promote a tweet; in other words, an army of bot accounts disguised as antigovernment accounts, such as advocates of overthrowing the Islamic Republic.151Hadi Nili (@HadiNili), “just an example of how entities affiliated w/ Iran security & propaganda apparatus try to manipulate debates on Twitter. also has a specific category for anti-regime users to promote a tweet. (ht @HSetare) meaning they probably have an army of users pretending to be anti-regime,” Twitter, 3:04 p.m., March 10, 2021, https://twitter.com/hadinili/status/1369665372580962305.

Internet shutdowns

Since 2011, Iran has also been making moves to implement a domestic or “halal” Internet known as the National Information Network (NIN), which hosts websites, applications, servers, and a lot of Internet infrastructure separate from the international Internet. In other words, if Iran disconnected from the international Internet gateways, this infrastructure would remain online.152Esfandiari, “Iran to Work with China to Create National Internet System.” 

The authorities allege the goal of the domestic Internet is to protect Iran’s Internet infrastructure from foreign cyberattacks and to counter a “cultural invasion” from the West but it is clear that the NIN is also being used to disconnect Iranian users from the international Internet.153“Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns,” 23. To accommodate the NIN, Iranian authorities have increased Internet speeds, while also violating net neutrality by charging Iranians double in fees if they want to access foreign websites.154Holly Dagres, “The Case for Net Neutrality in Iran,” Al-Monitor, January 30, 2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2018/01/iran-internet-restrictions-net-neutrality-jahromi-rouhani.html. More importantly, the NIN has made it easy for authorities to shut down the Internet, a relatively new development over the past two years, as all domestic websites and apps—such as banking, media, and government websites—were already on domestic servers.155“Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns,” 14. Prior to the November 2019 protests, the Iranian government relied mainly on banning access to websites, though it also resorted to Internet throttling, such as during the 2009 Green Movement and 2013 presidential election. 

Since the November 2019 protests, there have been at least five Internet shutdowns, most significantly during times of unrest.

Whenever there are protests, it is now safe to assume that an Internet shutdown will follow. As ARTICLE19 reported: “Within internal meetings of the Iranian judiciary, officials have indicated that shutdowns can be triggered in the event of any unrest in the country.”156Ibid., 13. This was the case during the November 2019 protests. From November 16, 2019, until November 21, 2019, there was a nationwide Internet blackout with Netblocks reporting only 4–7-percent connectivity.157“Internet Disrupted in Iran amid Fuel Protests in Multiple Cities,” NetBlocks, November 15, 2019, https://netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-iran-amid-fuel-protests-in-multiple-cities-pA25L18b. A year later, on the anniversary of the antigovernment protests, Netblock reported “partial disruption” to the Internet for two hours.158“Internet Disrupted in Iran on Anniversary of Fuel Protests,” NetBlocks, November 16, 2020, https://netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-iran-on-anniversary-of-fuel-protests-zA4nzlyR. Since the November 2019 protests, there have been at least five Internet shutdowns, most significantly during times of unrest.159Melody Kazemi, “Internet Shutdown Trends in Iran: November 2019 to July 2021,” Filterwatch, September 3, 2021, https://filter.watch/en/2021/09/03/internet-shutdown-trends-in-iran-from-november-2019-to-july-2021/. In March 2021, authorities “impos[ed] a near total Internet shutdown” by cutting of mobile Internet in southeast Sistan and Baluchistan Province to quell protests and hide human-rights violations and brute force by security forces.160“Iran: Internet Shutdowns Curb Protests and Conceal Human Rights Violations in Sistan and Baluchistan,” Amnesty International, March 4, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde13/3782/2021/en/. What is noteworthy in this instance is that 96 percent of the province’s impoverished population, the Baluch ethnic minority, is said to access the Internet via mobile-Internet carriers, as this is much more affordable than having a personal computer and landline infrastructure is underdeveloped.161“Internet Disruption Reported in Southeast Iran amid Unrest,” Associated Press, February 27, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/voa-news-iran/internet-disruption-reported-southeast-iran-amid-unrest. 

Beginning July 15, 2021, an Internet and mobile-Internet disruption took place in southwest Khuzestan Province. According to Netblocks, there were “widespread user reports of cellular network disruptions, consistent with a regional Internet shutdown intended to control protests.” Like Sistan and Baluchistan, Khuzestan residents depend on mobile-Internet carriers due to underdeveloped landline infrastructure. Netblocks reported that the disruptions knocked out 3–4 percent of Iran’s mobile data.162“Mobile Internet Disrupted in Iran amid Khuzestan Water Protests,” NetBlocks, July 21, 2021, https://netblocks.org/reports/mobile-internet-disrupted-in-iran-amid-khuzestan-water-protests-1yPjK9AQ. Kurdish-Iranian exiled activist and journalist Behrouz Boochani tweeted on July 21, 2021: “[T]he last time that the Iranian gov[ernment] shut down the internet, at least 1500 people were killed over a few days.”163Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani), “The internet has been periodically limited over several days in Ahwaz, ‘Iran’—the last time that the Iranian gov shut down the internet, at least 1500 people were killed over a few days,” Twitter, July 22, 2021, 4:37 a.m., https://twitter.com/BehrouzBoochani/status/1418143265996505088. As protests spread to other cities and towns, disruptions were reported as well. On the two-year anniversary of the November 2019 protests, Iranians reported Internet speeds had “decreased dramatically,” while some mobile-Internet users reported temporary outages.164HRA News (@hra_news), “According to a number of citizens in Iran, Internet speed has decreased dramatically in recent days. Also, some citizens in different cities, in addition to a sharp decrease in internet speed, have reported a temporary outage of mobile operators in the past two days. #Internet_Outage,” Twitter, November 16, 2021, 10:33 a.m., https://twitter.com/hra_news/status/1460556642345533444. 

As of writing this report, the most recent incidents of a near-total mobile-Internet shutdown took place for almost twenty-four hours on November 25, 2021, allegedly after an Instagram account posted a call for water shortage protests in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan Province—just months after related protests—and a day later, on November 26, 2021, in the vicinity of the Isfahan farmer protests.165“Twenty-Three International Rights Organizations and Supporters of Internet Freedom Condemn the Internet shutdown in Iran,” The Miaan Group (accessed December 11, 2021), https://www.miaan.org/publication/nineteen-international-rights-organizations-and-supporters-of-internet-freedom-condemn-the-internet-shutdown-in-iran/. Authorities have recognized a direct correlation between disrupting or shutting down the Internet and demonstrations, which is why they will continue to be a tool of the Islamic Republic in times of strife.

Miaan Group’s Rashidi said that the “biggest fear” of Iranians is an Internet shutdown. He emphasizes, “Not having access to the internet simply means, not having a tool to communicate and not being connected to each other and the rest of the world securely.”166Amir Rashidi, email to author, May 4, 2021. Yet, shutdowns prove costly for the Iranian government. According to Netblocks, the November 2019 Internet shutdown cost the country $369.5 million a day.167Khosro Kalbasi, Iranians Endure Internet Shutdown with Despair and DisarrayAtlantic Council, November 25, 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iranians-endure-internet-shutdown-with-despair-and-disarray/. With the NIN, however, Internet shutdowns will become less costly for the Iranian government. This is, in part, because of US sanctions on the country—meaning that government censorship is not intended to be blamed on sanctions, but that US sanctions have accidentally played a role in helping with Internet censorship. Not only are sanctions forcing Internet businesses not to use foreign entities like hosting services, but Iran’s inability to conduct business or banking transactions means that there is less need for the country to have a connection to the international Internet.168“Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns,” 27. 

Sanctions impact

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been under some form of US sanctions.169It is worth reiterating that sanctions aren’t the main cause of Iranian government’s censorship of its people. The Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1992 blacklisted entities that “transfer goods or technology” to Iran or Iraq that could contribute to weapons of mass destruction.170H.R.5434—102nd Congress (1991-1992), July 2, 1992, https://www.congress.gov/bill/102nd-congress/house-bill/5434. In 1995, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12959, which “prohibits re-exportation of goods or technology to, and investments in, Iran.” At one point, technology-related sanctions on Iran were so extensive that they “could encompass everything developed in the computer age.”171Pinky P. Mehta, “Sanctioning Freedoms: US Sanctions against Iran Affecting Information and Communications Technology Companies,” 2016, 6. It wasn’t until the 2009 Green Movement that these restrictions were seen in the United States as problematic, as they were preventing Iranians from accessing certain information and communications technology.

In 2010, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a Personal Communications General License, which “authorizes the exportation from the United States or by US persons, wherever located, to persons in Iran of no-cost services incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet and no-cost software necessary to enable such services.” The goal was to provide a free flow of information. This included services such as blogging (e.g., Blogger), email (e.g., Yahoo!), instant messaging (e.g., MSN Messenger), photo and movie sharing, social media (e.g., Facebook), and web browsing.172“Frequently Asked Questions: Iran Sanctions,” US Department of the Treasury, February 7, 2014, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/faqs/344; Barbara C. Hammerle, “(31 C.F.R. PART 560) Interpretive Guidance and Statement of Licensing Policy on Internet Freedom in Iran,” US Department of the Treasury, March 20, 2012, https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/126/internet_freedom.pdf; Kenneth Katzman, “Iran Sanctions,” Congressional Research Service, April 6, 2021, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RS20871.pdf. Still, many ICT companies continued not to export technology or offer services to Iranians.173https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=70212f0e-0d54-456f-b4e0-7476a65355c9. Realizing this, in 2012, OFAC expanded the license to include browsers and their updates (e.g., Firefox), document readers (e.g., Acrobat Reader), personal data storage (e.g., Dropbox), and plug-ins (e.g., Java), among others.174“Fact Sheet: Treasury Issues Interpretive Guidance and Statement of Licensing Policy on Internet Freedom in Iran,” US Department of the Treasury, March 20, 2012, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1456.aspx. OFAC amended the general license before the June 2013 presidential election to include antivirus software (e.g., Norton), cell phones (e.g., iPhones), computers (e.g., HP), and website hosting.175Mehta, “Sanctioning Freedoms: US Sanctions against Iran Affecting Information and Communications Technology Companies,” 13. 

…the vague language of technology-related sanctions continues to confuse tech companies, which are risk adverse and fear changes in interpretations depending on the political winds out of Washington.

When the multilateral nuclear accord, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in 2015, sanctions related to technology were not altered, as they were not nuclear related. As a result, these sanctions remain in place and have not evolved to include the latest ICT, such as cloud hosting services. Additionally, despite several amendments to the general license, the vague language of technology-related sanctions continues to confuse tech companies, which are risk adverse and fear changes in interpretations depending on the political winds out of Washington.176Ibid., 16–17. The most recent example of a company being punished for violating US technology sanctions is SAP Software Solutions. The German software giant was slapped with a penalty of $8 million in April 2021 for exporting US software to Iranian users. During 2010 and 2017, SAP allowed 2,360 Iranian users to access US-based cloud services, and sent software and upgrade patches more than twenty thousand times.177Aruna Viswanatha, “SAP Admits Iran Sanction Violations to Justice Department,” Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/sap-admits-iran-sanction-violations-to-justice-department-11619726149.

These provisions are meant, in the words of academic Pinky Mehta, “to support Iranian civilians’ freedom of information and communication, and to counter human rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian government.”178Mehta, “Sanctioning Freedoms: US Sanctions against Iran Affecting Information and Communications Technology Companies,” 32. And yet, they are hurting ordinary Iranians and their access to information.

Despite numerous attempts to update the general license, in September 2017, the Apple App Store removed more than a dozen popular Iranian apps including Digikala (Iran’s version of Amazon), and Snapp (Iran’s version of Uber). Around the same time, Iranian iOS app developers received the following message from Apple: “Under the US sanctions regulations, the App Store cannot host, distribute, or do business with apps or developers connected to certain US embargoed countries.”179Amar Toor, “Apple Removes Popular Apps in Iran Due to US Sanctions,” Verge, August 25, 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/25/16201434/apple-iran-app-store-removal-sanctions-trump. A week after Apple revoked apps, Google Play did the same thing.180D. Parvaz, “Iranians Outraged over Removal of Apps from Google Play Store,” ThinkProgress, September 8, 2017, https://thinkprogress.org/google-play-iranian-apps-sanctions-2e7ba4b1649d/; Holly Dagres, “Iranians Rail against Apple, Google over Pulling of Apps,” Al-Monitor, September 26, 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2017/09/iran-apple-google-appstore-app-removal-snapp-digikala.html. Why Apple and Google suddenly became overzealous with compliance despite a general license is unclear, given that the United States did not withdraw from the JCPOA until May 2018. “Restrictions on apps have instead handed Iran’s government a propaganda gift, allowing it to rail against American tech companies for discriminating against Iranian business people and consumers,” wrote the Bloomberg editorial board at the time.181“Allow Iranian Entrepreneurs to Sell Their Apps,” Bloomberg, September 18, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2017-09-18/allow-iranian-entrepreneurs-to-sell-their-apps. In March 2018, Apple restored Iranian access to the App Store.182“Apple Unblocks App Store for Iranians Again,” Financial Tribune, March 16, 2018, https://financialtribune.com/articles/economy-sci-tech/83656/apple-unblocks-app-store-for-iranians-again.

Ironically, US sanctions were also a “gift” to Iranian authorities when it came to Internet censorship. After the reimposition of broad-based sanctions in May 2018, after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, US infrastructure providers—cloud and hosting companies such as Amazon Web Services, DigitalOcean, GoDaddy, and Google—stopped providing platforms and services to Iranian users. This forced Iranian companies to use domestic infrastructure services under the NIN, including Daal and Balad (Iran’s version of Google Maps), which is, in part, why it was so easy for the Islamic Republic to shut down the Internet for a week during the November 2019 protests.183Azin Mohajerin, To Help the Iranian People, Reverse Tech Sanctions ASAPAtlantic Council, January 17, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/to-help-the-iranian-people-reverse-tech-sanctions-asap/. When companies like Amazon Web Services and DigitalOcean deny access to Iranians due to sanctions, it impacts other elements as well. For example, the circumvention tool Lantern was blocked because it uses a US infrastructure-provider company.184“Iran: Tightening the Net 2020 after Blood and Shutdowns,” 26. The service was later restored.

The Iranian government has also used sanctions to warn that the United States will cut Iranians from the international Internet, though US officials have repeatedly denied this. “US sanctions indirectly provided the groundwork and ammunition for increased implementation of the NIN, partly as a result of necessity and partly by playing into Iranian government propaganda regarding vulnerability to outside forces, justifying intensification for NIN implementation,” ARTICLE19 notes.185Ibid., 26. In turn, this false accusation has been used to justify further developing the NIN.186Ibid., 25. Most recently, in early March 2021, Internet disruptions in Iran were blamed by the ICT Ministry on an “undersea cable fault in the Mediterranean Sea.”187Mahsa Alimardani, email to author, June 8, 2021. The ministry then claimed the problem couldn’t be fixed until March 24, 2021 due to a NATO naval exercise in the Mediterranean, but there was no ongoing drill at the time.188Ibid. 

It is worth noting that there has been some progress with OFAC. In January 2021, Microsoft-owned GitHub announced that it will offer its free and paid services to Iranians again after OFAC issued the open-source hosting site a license. In 2019, GitHub had restricted its services to the Iranian developer community to comply with US sanctions.189Rita Liao and Manish Singh, “GitHub Confirms It Has Blocked Developers in Iran, Syria and Crimea,” TechCrunch, July 29, 2019, https://techcrunch.com/2019/07/29/github-ban-sanctioned-countries/. “Over the course of two years, we were able to demonstrate how developer use of GitHub advances human progress, international communication, and the enduring US foreign policy of promoting free speech and the free flow of information,” wrote GitHub Chief Executive Officer Nat Friedman.190Nat Friedman, “Advancing Developer Freedom: GitHub Is Fully Available in Iran,” GitHub Blog, January 5, 2021, https://github.blog/2021-01-05-advancing-developer-freedom-github-is-fully-available-in-iran/. Just weeks before GitHub stopped its services for Iranians, in December 2018, Slack had shut down the accounts of users of Iranian heritage who were visiting Iran. The users who were working while in Iran had been identified via their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and banned in order to comply with US sanctions.191Jon Russell, “Slack Says It Will Comply with Sanctions and Block Iran-Based Activity, Apologizes for Botched First Effort,” TechCrunch, December 22, 2018, https://techcrunch.com/2018/12/22/slack-says-it-will-comply-with-sanctions/. Often when users are banned, it is done without a warning or an option to backup and export information.192Nima Fatemi and Gissou Nia, “For Free Expression in Iran, the U.S. Can Act to Keep the Internet On,” Just Security, February 20, 2020, https://www.justsecurity.org/68743/for-free-expression-in-iran-the-u-s-can-act-to-keep-the-internet-on/. This is just one of many examples of how US sanctions are adversely affecting not only ordinary Iranians, but those of Iranian heritage.

In October 2021, a bipartisan group of twenty-one members of Congress called on the Biden administration to “authorize access to information technology for the people of Iran” and “to act swiftly to clarify allowable activities and make needed changes to enhance the free flow of information in Iran,” referring to OFAC’s general license. The campaign, which was spearheaded by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) and Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), has yet to see any changes implemented by OFAC.193“Bipartisan Congressional Group Urges Biden to Support Internet Freedom in Iran,” Center for Human Rights in Iran, October 11, 2021, https://iranhumanrights.org/2021/10/bipartisan-congressional-group-urges-biden-to-support-internet-freedom-in-iran/; Note: Per discussion with PAAIA Political Director Morad Ghorban on December 10, 2021. 

Controversial Internet bill

On July 28, 2021, the hardline majority parliament moved closer to implementing a bill that would curb online freedom. “The Cyberspace Users Rights Protection and Regulation of Key Online Services”—also known as the “Protection Bill”—would criminalize distribution, selling, and possibly the use of VPNs. Control of Iran’s Internet gateways—infrastructure connecting the country to the Internet—would be transferred to a new entity supervised by the armed forces and security apparatus. The bill also calls for international tech companies offering email, hosting services, messaging, and social media to appoint an Iranian representative to comply with the country’s rules and collaborate on content moderation and surveillance.194Note: During the Khuzestan protests in July 2021, Instagram content moderators took down posts of antigovernment protests because they contained #deathtokhamenei, a popular chant used by protesters. According to Facebook, these posts violated their community guidelines on violence and incitement, but they made a two-week exception. See: https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7exzm/facebook-says-death-to-khamenei-posts-are-ok-for-the-next-two-weeks. If international tech companies don’t obey, their services would be blocked or constricted. However, as Iranian journalist Sayeh Esfahani observes, “because Iran is subject to both US and international sanctions, tech companies, especially American firms, are legally barred from conceding to the demands. Even Gmail and WhatsApp would likely be blocked going forward.”195Sayeh Isfahani, “Iran Aims to End Online Freedoms ‘for Good,’” Slate, August 9, 2021, https://slate.com/technology/2021/08/iran-protection-bill-internet-censorship.html.

While authorities claim the bill’s goal is to protect Iranians, most beg to differ. “They’re not concerned with ideology, they’re concerned with defending itself and vaccinating itself against any social movements,” Ali Reza, a civil-rights activist based in Iran, explains.196Activist, message to author, September 14, 2021. Fearing reprisal from the Iranian government, the interviewee asked the author to use a pseudonym to protect their identity. “Their concern in the end is about the formation of social movements and helping control the internet and cyberspace and all of its efforts is to control that space.”197Ibid.

Another element that would be included in the bill is a ranking system for users which would provide different levels of access to the Internet based on criteria such as age and profession. This has already been the case for those close to the establishment, including some academics and journalists who have been given access to uncensored Internet.198Isfahani, “Iran Aims to End Online Freedoms ‘for Good.’” For example, Hossein Dalirian, an Iran-based journalist with alleged ties to the IRGC, went to Khuzestan Province during the water-crisis protests and tweeted on July 22, 2021: “The internet of Ahvaz city is connected and has no problems.”199Hossein Dalirian (@HosseinDalirian), “The internet of Ahvaz city is connected and has no problems #KhuzestanStory,” Twitter, July 22, 2021, 12:37 p.m., https://twitter.com/HosseinDalirian/status/1418264052682346496. Note: Dalirian was the former editor of the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency. His Twitter bio states that he is a “freelance journalist & defense expert.” Even though Internet shutdowns were widely reported in the province, based on the barrage of angry tweets calling Dalirian out, it quickly became clear he was one of the journalists given special access—“journalists’ internet” as it’s known—to toe the line of the establishment. 

On news of the so-called “Protection Bill,” reaction was swift. Just days before, forty-seven of Iran’s largest tech companies—including Internet service providers, online retailers, and streaming services—issued a joint statement: “We stress that this bill will certainly not benefit Iranian internet businesses and its designers must know that its damages to local businesses will far outweigh its benefits.”200Maziar Motamedi, “Under Pressure, Iranian MPs Postpone Internet Restriction Bill,” Al Jazeera, July 26, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/26/under-pressure-iranian-mps-postpone-internet-restriction-bill. Iranian outlet Tejarat News, basing its information on a SCI report from September 2021, noted that eleven million Iranians would lose their income and employment if the bill passed.201“Bad News for 11 Million Social Media Users.” Many Iranians took to social media using the hashtag طرح_صیانت# (“Protection bill”) and نه_به_طرح_صیانت# (“No to protection bill”) to share their anger, frustration, and worries about the future of Internet access in their country. Some even tweeted photos of the universal hand signal for help and likened the move to Iran becoming North Korea in terms of international isolation. One Iranian student tweeted in English: “On behalf of Iranian students, if the new internet censorship rules are applied, we would no longer have ANY access to the world, to scientific papers, we would be banned from studying! Please hear us!”202Ghazal (@persianrhapsody), “On behalf of iranian students, if the new internet censorship rules are applied, we would no longer have ANY access to the world, to scientific papers, we would be banned from studying! Please hear us!” Twitter, July 28, 2021, 5:37 a.m., https://twitter.com/persianrhapsody/status/1420332630827053058. As of December 2021, an online petition, “Opposition to plans to restrict international Internet access and social media filtering,” has garnered more than 1.1 million signatures.203“Opposition to Plans to Restrict International Internet Access and Social Media Filtering,” Kazar, July 6, 2021, https://www.karzar.net/internet.

Iranian tweets the Islamic Republic symbol combined with the North Korean flag.

News of the bill left many Iranians disheartened. Video creator Ryan the Gray said that his goal was to become a content creator, but now he has been trying to find a way to leave permanently. He clarified, “I didn’t care if I was in Iran or not, but the past few years led me to believe that the future looks very grim here. For example, if the internet gets shutdown by the government there is nothing I can do here.”204Ryan The Gray, message to author, August 9, 2021. Ryan adds, “If it happens it will take Iran back to middle ages and people will suffer heavily. No sane person wants this internet bill.”205Ibid. Similar comments were made by journalist Mahyar, who until recently was based in Iran. “Life would become really unbearable if the bill is fully implemented,” he says.206Fearing reprisal from the Iranian government, the interviewee asked the author to use a pseudonym to protect their identity. “Right now at least people can watch series and spend time on Instagram. That bill would take away the smallest joys.”207Journalist, message to author, August 8, 2021. A special commission to review the so-called “Protection Bill” convened in September 2021.208“The Special Commission to Review the Protection Plan Will Start Working in September,” Shanbe Press, August 23, 2021, https://shanbepress.com/special-committee-for-protection-plan-will-start-working-in-september/. According to Niloufar, the influencer, there’s now a push by ordinary Iranians and Instagram business owners to start an online campaign against the bill.209Anonymous influencer, message to author, September 10, 2021. 

The [Facebook] outage demonstrated not just how dependent much of the world is on such platforms as a means of communication, but especially for Iran, as it’s the Iranian people’s main connection to the outside world.

Around the same time that the special commission convened, in September 2021, Tejarat News reported that Iranians were having trouble accessing Telegram and Twitter via circumvention tools.210“Bad News for 11 Million Social Media Users.” When Facebook and its family of apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp, experienced a global outage for several hours on October 4, 2021, some Iranians thought the incident was tied to their government permanently blocking access to the international Internet.211Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel, “Gone in Minutes, Out for Hours: Outage Shakes Facebook,” New York Times, October 4, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/04/technology/facebook-down.html. A former Iranian journalist tweeted, “[My] kid came and said, ‘Mom, they nationalized the net.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I don’t have WhatsApp and Instagram.’ I was so flustered when I heard what happened, I was speechless.”212Elahe Khosravi (@elahekhyegane), Twitter, October 4, 2021, 5:37 p.m., https://twitter.com/elahekhyegane/status/1445065537466376192. Many Iranians also frantically reached out to their relatives living abroad to find out if they had been disconnected from the international Internet.213Holly Dagres (@hdagres), “An Iranian friend, who up until recently lived in Iran, saw my tweet and told me that he’s ‘received a lot of messages from friends and family asking the same.’ #KeepItOn,” Twitter, October 4, 2021, 10:00 p.m., https://twitter.com/hdagres/status/1445131825819570178. The outage demonstrated not just how dependent much of the world is on such platforms as a means of communication, but especially for Iran, as it’s the Iranian people’s main connection to the outside world. 

Iranians continue to experience Internet disruptions, with some users unable to access services like Google’s email and search engine, Instagram, and Wikipedia. Others reported that circumvention tools “have been either working with great difficulty or not connecting at all.”214“Tightening the Net: Alarming Moves to Enforce the ‘User Protection Bill,’” ARTICLE19, November 4, 2021, https://www.article19.org/resources/tightening-the-net-is-the-dangerous-user-protection-bill-still-imminent/. Some officials blamed the Internet disruption on the surge of students using the Internet since the school year started in September 2021, while an Iranian outlet claimed that the Supreme Council of Cyberspace had not issued new licenses purchased bandwidth from international providers, per its mandate. However, ARTICLE19 found that “data did not necessarily corroborate this theory.”215Ibid.

In late October 2021, Iran experienced a nationwide cyberattack on gas stations, just three weeks before the anniversary of the November 2019 antigovernment protests.216Vivian Yee, “Iranian Motorists Hit with Cyberattack at Filling Stations,” New York Times, October 26, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/26/world/middleeast/iran-gas-station-hack.html. Hardline politicians used the incident as justification to push forth the “Protection Bill” despite Iran’s fuel infrastructure not being connected to the Internet, according to former Deputy ICT Minister Amir Nazemy.217Amir Namezy (@amirnazemy), “The infrastructure of the country’s gas station, is a separate network and such connections haven’t been established through the #internet network,” Twitter, October 26, 2021, 2:42 p.m., https://twitter.com/amirnazemy/status/1452994039326912534. A day after the cyberattack, on October 27, 2021, Mehrdad Weiss Karami, secretary of parliament’s special commission assigned to review the bill, said: “As soon as people see that the enemy can hit the country in a cyberattack, it shows that we must pay special attention to the areas related to cyber defense and the laws that guarantee it.”218Amir Rashidi and Mani Mostofi, Throwing Gas on the Fire of Iranian Internet SuppressionAtlantic Council, November 3, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/throwing-gas-on-the-fire-of-iranian-internet-suppression/.

What Hooman Ghorbanian’s Rubika account looks like (he posted this on Twitter).

One brash move to promote the NIN was the development of a carbon copy alternative to Instagram, known as Rubika. In August 2021, the state-supported domestic photo-sharing app was the center of controversy when hundreds of exact copies of prominent Iranian Instagram accounts appeared on Rubika without the permission of account owners.219“Tightening the Net: Alarming Moves to Enforce the ‘User Protection Bill.’” The serial identity theft was first reported by Hooman Ghorbanian, an Iran-based social media marketing specialist, who had discovered his Instagram account (@hooman_media) had been replicated—complete with all his photos and captions—on Rubika without his consent.220Amir Hossein Miresmaeili, “Iranians Furious at Identity Theft by IRGC’s Instagram Ripoff,” IranWire, August 16, 2021, https://iranwire.com/en/features/10161. Soon it became clear this had happened to not only prominent Iranians in society, but in some cases, ordinary people. After Rubika refused to remove the fake accounts, Iranians launched a social media campaign using روبیکا# (“Rubika)” that called on people to report the app on Google Play. Before long, countless one-star ratings appeared—some Iranians left English reviews calling the app a “thief of information,” “scam,” and “disaster”—and within days, Google banned Rubika on August 19, 2021. Many Iranians, including Ghorbanian, are under the impression that the illegal move to copy accounts are not just a push to boost the popularity of the domestic app, but also tied to the so-called “Protection Bill” that would block Instagram in the near future.221“Rubika accused of dirty tricks to beat Instagram in Iranian market,” Iranian Cyber News Agency, August 2021, https://irancybernews.org/?p=2313.

As of November 2021, parliament’s special commission has convened on the bill on several occasions, and even livestreamed discussions on Instagram—though the special commission has yet to actually debate the legislation, reported ARTICLE19.222“Tightening the Net: Alarming Moves to Enforce the ‘User Protection Bill.’” Nevertheless, a member of the special commission claimed the bill will be ratified in mid-March 2022.223Ibid.

Can the Internet “liberate” Iran?

For years, there was a theory that “liberation technology”—referring to ICT—would help free people living under repressive regimes such as the Islamic Republic. This was best exemplified during the 2009 Green Movement, which many Western media outlets dubbed Iran’s “Twitter revolution,” though that was not the case.224Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 1–4. Much of the street mobilization was via word of mouth and text message. Once the brutal crackdown began, it turned ordinary Iranians into citizen journalists who documented the scenes of violence with their cell phones and cameras, which were then uploaded onto YouTube, then amplified on social media. Many activists mobilized using Facebook, which was blocked.225Golnaz Esfandiari, “The Myths and Realities of New Media in Iran’s Green Movement,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, June 11, 2010, https://www.rferl.org/a/Irans_Green_Movement_And_New_Media/2068714.html. 

Nevertheless, policymakers failed to take note of how authoritarian governments would respond, and saw the world through the lens of what scholar Evgeny Morozov describes as “cyber-utopianism,” or a “naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication.”226The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, xiii. As demonstrated in 2009, social media were unable to prevent the countless human-rights violations committed by the Islamic Republic during the Green Movement.227Larry Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” Journal of Democracy 21, 3, July 2010, 80. If anything, the Green Movement proved that information and communications technology could not be as liberating as some in Washington had hoped. And, as Morozov rightfully argues, when the US State Department reached out to Twitter at the time to delay its planned upgrade because it was an “important communication tool in Iran”—a grand overstatement—Iranian authorities saw it as a Western soft-power tool with the ultimate goal of bringing about regime change in Iran.228Sue Pleming, “US State Department speaks to Twitter over Iran,” Reuters, June 16, 2009, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-election-twitter-usa-idUSWBT01137420090616The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, 10. As a result, the security establishment of the Islamic Republic viewed the post-election protests and ICT as reasons to build its censorship and cyber-monitoring capabilities.

The December 2017–January 2018 protests were initially prompted by videos of hardliners in Mashhad protesting the Rouhani government, which were amplified on Telegram only to spread like a wildfire. The protests over mismanagement, corruption, and disillusionment with the clerical establishment spread to more than eighty provincial cities and towns. It would take Internet throttling and a violent crackdown to put an end to the unrest. The nationwide November 2019 protests—prompted by a sudden fuel hike—were quelled by a week-long Internet shutdown and bloody crackdown in which security forces arrested and killed thousands. Nevertheless, the high number of arrests and deaths over the past few years hasn’t deterred Iranians from participating in protests.229“Iran: Security Forces Use Ruthless Force, Mass Arrests and Torture to Crush Peaceful Protests,” Amnesty International, August 11, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/08/iran-security-forces-use-ruthless-force-mass-arrests-and-torture-to-crush-peaceful-protests/. If anything, protests have become normalized.

Social media is our only hope for making changes here! It has been our way of communicating with the world when we had no other chance! Everything else is banned and now they are going to cut our only hope to be heard by the world.

Niloufar, the influencer, explains that social media have made Iranians, “one hundred percent more vocal” because Iranians “have nothing to lose.” She adds: “Social media is our only hope for making changes here! It has been our way of communicating with the world when we had no other chance! Everything else is banned and now they are going to cut our only hope to be heard by the world.”230Anonymous influencer, message to author, September 10, 2021. Every time the abuses of the security forces are amplified on social media, it reveals another brutal layer to the Iranian public, and undermines the clerical establishment’s support base. This happened in August 2021, when hackers calling themselves Edalat-e Ali (Ali’s Justice) released security-camera footage from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison to the Associated Press.231Jon Gambrell, “Leaked Footage Shows Grim Conditions in Iran’s Evin Prison,” Associated Press, August 23, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/technology-health-religion-iran-prisons-01dfade61d7a706d630bf83d30d8cb02. The graphic security footage was amplified online and embarrassed Iranian officials, though it was not enough to cause tangible change in the Iranian prison system.

While this report has not been able to explore this element in detail, there is mounting evidence that social media have been connecting Iranians inside Iran with the diaspora—the most recent example of that being via Clubhouse. Social media have also given a voice to marginalized communities in the country.232David M. Faris and Babak Rahimi, Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society after 2009 (New York: State University Of New York Press, 2015), 6. This is precisely why the clerical establishment finds the Internet to be part of a “soft war” being waged against the Islamic Republic.233Mahsa Alimardani and Marcus Michaelson, “IRAN: Centralized control and tattered accountability,” The Global Handbook of Media Accountability(London: Routledge, 2021), 15. Additionally, as IHRDC’s executive director Shahin Milani pointed out: “As a totalitarian state, the Islamic Republic controls the media narrative it wants the Iranian society to see. Therefore, when information posted to the social media negate the Islamic Republic’s narrative, social media become a national security threat.”234Shahin Milani, email to author, September 22, 2021.

In 2010, academic Larry Diamond was one of many who held a cyber-utopian view that information and communications technology has “the consciousness, knowledge, and mobilizational capacity that will eventually bring down autocracy in Iran.”235Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” 80. Iranian protesters have tried and tested his discourse over the years with no success—thus far. This is coupled with the fact the Islamic Republic has, like many authoritarian governments, turned ICT into a tool of repression, whereby it can monitor, and even attack and silence dissidents with state-sponsored troll and bot armies.236Kargar and Rauchfleisch, “State-Aligned Trolling in Iran and the Double-Edged Affordances of Instagram.” Diamond adds that, “A key factor affecting when that will happen will be the ability of Iranians to communicate more freely and securely online.”237Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” 80. The Islamic Republic fears and controls the Internet for this exact reason. With an Internet bill in the works, the clerical establishment knows it can kill any notion of “liberation technology” once and for all.

Recommendations

The Iranian government’s widespread censorship of the Internet has been long in the making. While US sanctions have played a role in exacerbating a bad situation by cutting Iranians off from global apps and services, and forcing them to use Iranian versions, US sanctions aren’t connected to censorship. The censorship onus falls largely on the clerical establishment. The Islamic Republic under three consecutive governments—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Rouhani, and now Ebrahim Raisi—has denied Iranians their online freedom, which is a human right.238Emma Boyle, “The UN Says Online Freedom Is a Human Right That ‘Must Be Protected,’” Independent, July 5, 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/un-declares-online-freedom-be-human-right-must-be-protected-a7120186.html.

With 90 percent of its NIN developed, Iran is close to achieving its Internet independence. Iranians must remain online to connect safely with one another and connect to the world. Here are several recommendations for how to help Iranians.

  • Led by the Joe Biden administration, Western governments must work to ban the export of digital surveillance and filtering technology to authoritarian governments. As a case in point, California-based Blue Coat Systems Internet-monitoring devices have allegedly been detected in Iran.239Steven Feldstein, “Governments Are Using Spyware on Citizens. Can They Be Stopped?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 21, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/07/21/governments-are-using-spyware-on-citizens.-can-they-be-stopped-pub-85019; Ellen Nakashima, “Report: Web Monitoring Devices Made by U.S. Firm Blue Coat Detected in Iran, Sudan,” Washington Post, July 8, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/report-web-monitoring-devices-made-by-us-firm-blue-coat-detected-in-iran-sudan/2013/07/08/09877ad6-e7cf-11e2-a301-ea5a8116d211_story.html.
  • The Biden administration and other Western governments must uphold end-to-end encryption and privacy standards without interference from governments to prevent any nefarious cooperation between technology companies and authoritarian states.
  • The Biden administration should be more vocal when activists, journalists, and ordinary Iranians are arrested for their Internet activities.
  • While US sanctions have rules and exemptions, such as the General License D-1—which provides certain hardware, software, and services related to personal communications—tech companies are over-complying or reading the guidance restrictively. OFAC must broaden and update its General License D-1, and also provide guidance and assurance to tech companies—perhaps through a special liaison, or at least do routine outreach to ICT companies about any changes to sanctions laws. This also goes hand in hand with OFAC frequently updating its frequently asked questions (FAQs).
  • The Biden administration should take a page out of how the United States deals with disaster-relief aid and offer authorizations rather than exemptions, which would allow “US agencies to regulate these issues, grant licenses for the exportation of goods and services that would have otherwise been prohibited under sanctions, update and change the scope of these licenses, and enact penalties against infringers.”240Mehta, “Sanctioning Freedoms: US Sanctions against Iran Affecting Information and Communications Technology Companies,” 797. By whitelisting services, OFAC would be able to provide certainty in most instances. 
  • In the absence of US cooperation, tech companies must devote resources and time, in the manner that GitHub did, to acquire General Licenses for their products.
  • Social media companies must increase resources on Iran to support Iranian users. This includes keeping Persian-language content up and ensuring that apps remain accessible, e.g., continuing to offer “lite” versions, which use less data.
  • Policymakers and Internet-freedom advocates should work together to implement a playbook in the event that another major Internet shutdown happens. This should include, at the very least, coordinated statements condemning the government-imposed Internet shutdown. 
  • Tech companies should better communicate with users about potentially being impacted by US sanctions. Tech companies should also put an appeals system in place to allow users recourse if they are wrongly targeted. One too many instances have happened in which not just Iranians inside of Iran, but also diaspora Iranians, have been denied access to their accounts merely for having Iranian heritage.
  • Finally, the Biden administration needs to examine the impact of current US sanctions policy to understand how US policies unknowingly support the NIN.

Holly Dagres is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. She is also the editor of the IranSource as well as MENASource blog and curator for the weekly newsletter, The Iranist. Before joining the Atlantic Council, Dagres worked as a freelance Iran analyst, regularly following traditional and social media in English and Persian. Dagres spent her adolescent years in Iran, from 1999 to 2006, during which time she graduated from Tehran International School. She is fluent in Persian.

The author is grateful to the Future of Iran Initiative and ARTICLE19’s Mahsa Alimardani for their contributions to this report, and especially to the brave Iranians who were willing to speak to her. 

Note: This report was last updated on December 15, 2021.

Middle East Programs

Through our Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, the Atlantic Council works with allies and partners in Europe and the wider Middle East to protect US interests, build peace and security, and unlock the human potential of the region.