“The enemy exploits cyberspaces to reduce the number of those running in the elections using psychological methods. Cyberspace needs to be managed. There’s no doubt that this channel must be used by civilians to bring them freedom. That’s very good. But it means that it must not be made available to the enemy plotting against the state and the nation,” Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei said on March 21, in a speech marking the start of the Iranian New Year.
There is admittedly nothing new about Iranian cyberwarfare and control of the Internet, particularly social media. As early as 2005, a plan to develop a national internet that would replace the worldwide web, at least locally, was proposed to the government. In 2013, after Hassan Rohani was elected president, the plan became a reality when it received a budgetary allocation of $200 million. Iran's so-called "National Information Network” is already up and running, mainly in e-commerce and government ministries, but is far from being an alternative to the World Wide Web or social media networks.
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The urgency with which Iranian officials warn of “enemies” meddling in Iranian affairs is typical of an election campaign period.
With less than 100 days to go until Iran’s presidential election, the regime is torn between two courses of action. On the one hand, it hopes to significantly increase voter turnout in order to gain public legitimacy, after only about 40 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in last year's parliamentary elections, the lowest turnout since the Islamic Revolution. On the other hand, the authorities fear an opening up of social networking because opponents and reformists previously used social media to recruit supporters.
In the wake of the 2009 elections, in which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency again, the regime shut down Facebook and Twitter, punishing anyone who continued to use the networks — the very same networks which had bolstered the Green Movement led by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claimed the elections were illegitimate and marred with fraud. After that, Iranians switched over to the Viber application, which was also shut down, and later, to Telegram and Instagram.
Telegram was blocked in 2018 after a large wave of anti-corruption protests demanding a regime change, but Instagram continues to operate, mainly because it serves as a business network and the regime is wary that shutting it down will effectively paralyze connections within the business community.
Recently, Clubhouse, the almost-year-old, invite-only, live-audio app that allows users to hold conversations, ask questions and engage with hosts and guest speaker in real-time, has become quite popular. Iranian figures have recently been invited to personal meetings, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who uses Twitter despite the decade-old ban, and other senior cabinet ministers. Although the app is open and free, it's also public, which means that users' behavior and details can be supervised and divulged, such that the danger of arrests or trials still lurks around the corner. The regime has yet to decide how it will handle this app but recent history suggests it will be banned in the near future. For now, despite the chatter, the app is available only to iPhone users, or roughly 15% of Iran's population of smartphone users.
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One question remains: to what extent have social networks made Middle Eastern countries more democratic? The conclusions reached by studies done in the field are quite dismal — there is no direct link between social networks and the creation of democratic regimes. The Arab Spring uprisings, referred to as "revolutions" on social media, successfully overthrew despotic regimes that ruled for decades, but largely failed to establish democratic alternatives in their place. Egypt is ruled by a dictator who violates human rights; in Libya, Yemen and Syria, civil wars are still raging; and in the UAE and Qatar, where social media is more widely used, ruling authoritarian dynasties remain in place, as in Iran.
Even so, the social networks offer an alternative, compelling public opinion independent of government information, as well as serving as a powerful civic education tool and recruiting channel for political action.The Iranian regime considers the social networks a subversive threat — not only because they threaten to topple the regime, but also because in the long-term they could undermine the ideological foundations on which the Islamic Revolution was built.
The regime's intense preoccupation with social media is reminiscent of the controversy that erupted in the early days of the revolution over cinema and videotapes. The leader of the revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, resolved the issue of cinema by ruling that cinema is an educational tool, and that therefore film production and distribution should continue, subject to the principles of the revolution. Videotapes won approval only later, when political jurists realized that they could be exploited for the benefit of the regime.
Social networks are still considered to be a platform that the regime can control, block access to and deter people from using by meting out harsh punishments for users who contravene bans. At the same time, however, the regime recognizes its inability to control content accessbilitity and the dissemination of technological methods that allow for the regime's bans to be circumvented.