In the physical world, Iran’s authoritarian leaders answer to no one. They try, but often fail, to keep Iranians away from Western entertainment and news. Thanks to its rules, women must cover their hair with headscarves and their bodies with loose clothing.
On the Internet, Iranians can often escape those ties.
They yell about Korean boy band BTS and actor Timothée Chalamet. They post selfies on Instagram: no headscarf, just hair. You can see leaked videos of appalling conditions in Iranian prisons, inspecting viral photos of the luxurious lives led by the children of top officials abroad while the economy collapses at home, reading about human rights abuses, showering politicians with questions on Twitter and booing their supreme leader, anonymously, in comments.
“In one world, the government controlled everything, and people always had to hide what they thought, what they wanted, what they liked, what they enjoyed in their real life,” said Mohammad Mosaed, an Iranian. investigative journalist who has been arrested twice for posting content online that the government deemed objectionable.
“But on the Internet, people had the opportunity to say what they wanted, to show who they really are,” he said. “And that caused conflict between the two worlds.”
Among Iranians, growing online outrage has helped fuel successive waves of protests against the autocratic clerics who rule them, culminating this month in nationwide demonstrations that challenged the foundations of the Islamic Republic.
Although the battle is being fought with bodies in the street, with women burning their headscarves and Iranians of all stripes facing security forces, it was the protesters’ phones that first brought them there.
On September 16, news broke online that a young woman had died in police custody after being accused of violating Iran’s mandatory veil law. Within a day, a quarter of a million Instagram users had joined a digital chain of Iranian posts about the woman, Mahsa Amini, and the hashtag bearing her name had been tweeted, retweeted or liked by more than nine million people. times.
Dozens of cities have erupted in protests every night since then. Security forces killed at least 50 people, according to human rights groups, and arrested more than 700 people, including journalists and activists who used social media to keep people informed.
Dozens of prominent athletes, including national soccer team stars Ali Karimi and Sardar Azmoun, celebrities and notable managers like Asghar Farhadi have used social media to announce their support for the protesters in the past week. The government has said they will face repercussions, including being banned from professional activity.
The government has responded to the riots with more than bullets, tear gas and beatings.
Nightly internet and app outages frustrate efforts to organize new protests and slow their momentum. But far beyond these protests, Iran’s leaders have worked for more than a decade to tighten control by building their own national internet, with copied versions of Google and Instagram. That has put his goal of shutting down the rest of the Internet almost within reach.
Under Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s new ultra-conservative president, Iran has heightened censorshipdisrupting VPNs, preventing encryption in messaging apps, and restricting Google searches to Safe Search, which shows only age-appropriate content for children under 13.
There are fears that a pending internet bill will block the remaining social media apps, which an estimated 11 million Iranians rely on for their livelihoods, working as influencers, selling products through Instagram and more.
Iran’s enemies are using social media in an “attack to distort and destroy” the clerical establishment, the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 83, warned in a February speech, calling on authorities to regulate Internet access.
“The judiciary must prevent people’s minds from being troubled and disturbed” by rumors and false claims “both in the media and on the Internet,” he said in June.
Nearly 80 percent of Iranians use some kind of social network, according to a survey this year by a government-affiliated group. Even many government officials are on Twitter, despite the fact that it is banned in Iran, in a tacit acknowledgment of its reach.
Recognizing that internet blackouts could quell protests, the Biden administration changed regulations last week to give US tech companies more room to offer services to Iranians without running afoul of US sanctions against Iran. But it is not clear how quickly they could act.
In a country where the media is tightly controlled and leaders rarely have to submit to public questioning, platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Clubhouse are the only means of holding the powers that be to account.
“It’s been critical for a lot of people to wake up and see what’s really going on,” said Shahin Milani, executive director of the US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. “And that’s really critical because no other medium offers that.”
Online revelations of abuse and double standards have stoked outrage and disgust among Iranians in recent years.
Some referred to the brutal crackdown on anti-government protests and the law requiring women to cover their bodies and hair. This summer, before Ms. Amini’s story broke, several videos circulated on social media in which Iran’s notorious morality police violently detained young women they felt were not covered.
But even seemingly trivial content could spark anger.
There were the photos in April showing that the family of the president of the country’s Parliament had gone abroad to buy baby clothes at a time when most Iranians could hardly buy cheap rompers made in Iran.
And in 2017, a viral video of the son of a prominent lawmaker attributing his career success to “great genes” struck a chord among those less connected and more troubled.
That fall, Iranians flocked to a social media campaign with the hashtag “I regret it,” uniting people who regretted voting for reformist candidates who failed to enact change.
By the end of 2017, protests sparked by malinvestment had sparked nationwide protests against the government and its economic policies.
Authorities have viewed the unfettered internet as a threat since 2009, when social media helped mobilize millions of Iranians in Green Movement protests over what they believed to be rigged presidential elections.
Once focused on developing a chaste domestic version of the Internet, the government focused its energies on creating one it could control.
“If I didn’t have access to the internet, I would believe anything they wanted to tell me,” said Amir Rashidi, director of security and digital rights at Miaan Group, which is based in the United States and supports human rights. groups in Iran. “Then they realized that that is where they are being hit and they need to control it.”
Under former President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderator in office from 2013 until last year, restrictions limiting internet speeds were lifted and mobile internet took off. Rouhani also spoke of allowing Western tech companies such as Twitter to enter the country under China-style conditions that would force them to impose restrictions on users.
But tight US sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program have made Silicon Valley unwilling or unable to work with Iran.
Instead, Iran created its own versions of Google, Instagram, WhatsApp and more, making sure the content was to their liking.
Statistics from Iran’s own app stores, however, show that only a few million people in a country of around 85 million have downloaded them. Researchers say that’s partly due to concerns about government surveillance.
And Iranians continue to find ways to get on the Internet in general: About 80 percent of Iranians depend on virtual private networks and proxies for access, a lawmaker told state media in July.
“The Iranians also see how the rest of the world lives and they want that too,” said Holly Dagres, an Iranian-American senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has written a report on Use of social media by Iranians. “But more importantly, it’s the only way for their voices to be heard.”
Now, when the Internet generally goes dark, Iran’s National Information Network remains active, enticing Iranians to migrate. State television has taken to promoting local apps during the current protests, informing viewers that while foreign apps need to be regulated to prevent “troublemakers” from causing further harm, the public is free to use their Iranian versions.
One solution, say Iranian activists, is for US tech companies to re-enter the field in Iran after backing down when President Donald J. Trump imposed tougher US sanctions on Iran.
Signal, a secure messaging app, said he and volunteer users were working to devise alternative ways to access and distribute Signal, but had encountered obstacles, including Iranian telecommunications companies preventing validation codes from being sent via message. of text. Google said it was working on technical tweaks to help with access. But broader solutions did not appear.
“The main tool we have to combat” Iranian government controls, Rashidi said, “is to break the isolation.”
Farnaz Fassihi contributed report.