Iran: Protesters Caught Between Regime and Negligence of Big Tech

Isabella Crispino
June 9, 2022
While the Internet shutdowns plaguing Iran have been a staple method of the regime for the last decade, recent events reveal a more pressing fault line in moments of crisis: the role and responsibility of Big Tech.

In the face of authoritarianism worldwide, some cries of defiance are heard – while others are drowned out. It took around two weeks for the ongoing protests in Iran to reach Western media channels. Two weeks, says Amir Rashidi, director of Digital Rights and Security at Miaan group, is far too late; “the dead are already dead, and the imprisoned are already suffering.” While the Internet shutdowns currently plaguing the country have been a staple method of the Iranian regime for the last decade, recent events reveal a more pressing fault line in moments of crisis: the role and responsibility of Big Tech.

Last year, NGO Article 19 uncovered 204 instances of the removal of posts and stories documenting Iranian protests on Instagram. Today, Iranian activists and internet experts claim that the information delays are not just the fault of the internet blackouts. Instead, they point to the censorship and inaction of social media platforms. The flurry of responses from tech companies to the Russian invasion of Ukraine signals that neutrality is off the table – Elon Musk’s Starlink internet satellites and Facebook’s restriction of Russian state media outlets are but a few keeping communication channels alive.

The delays are one of many factors suppressing the news of the events globally. Scant and ineffective Western media coverage, for journalist and host of the Iran Podcast Negar Mortazavi, results not only from politics – but from this lack of information. With limited international press presence, coverage of Iran is limited to foreign policy issues – bypassing domestic ones entirely. Zolal Habibi, an activist working with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, explains that Iranians have been left feeling that “the international community has turned a blind eye” to their plight. Despite the proven ability to play a role in remedying this access to information, In Iran – Big Tech has not been the panacea it has cast itself as.

The protests were sparked at the start of May in Khuzestan province by the state’s cut of wheat subsidies – making many basic goods unaffordable overnight. Twin crises have plagued Iran’s economy; the regime’s corruption and mismanagement, and the US’ crippling sanctions. Against this backdrop, the cuts were incendiary. Iranians have become “economically so desperate and politically so disillusioned”, says Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, “that they are willing to come to the street and be shot, killed or imprisoned.” Because of a lack of credible media presence, statistics are seldom reliable – but a report by the Center which could not be independently verified, has put the death toll to at least five. Throughout the month, the protests have evolved and spread. Now, they are demanding nothing short of regime change.

The demonstrations, reported in at least 40 cities and towns, show a strong political consciousness among Iranians – a legacy of over a decade of powerful protest movements following the 2009 Green Movement. Iran has since been engulfed by various cycles of political mobilization. In an environment with little tolerance for opposition, “the streets”, observes Ghaemi, “have become a major part of Iranian society’s need to affirm its existence”.

The current protests have been markedly radical. Habibi compares them to the previous protests of 2018, an analogous period of civil unrest with similar economic origins. Then, a few days passed before the focus of the protests eclipsed their economic trigger to take aim at the country’s leadership. Today, during protests following the collapse of the ten-story Metropol building in Abadan which has left at least 20 dead, the target was made clear within the first few hours; “Death to Khamenei” heard throughout.

For the protesters, the Iranian regime is squarely in the line of fire. “People are making clear that their problems are not limited to the economic situation. They want to see change ”, Habibi remarks. The erosion of the people’s hope for reform – a shift in mentality that Ghaemi has observed over the last decade – lends a revolutionary, yet desperate tinge to the protests. Put simply by Habibi, “The people of Iran have reached the point of no return”.

The protests have been made leaderless by the arrests of prominent activists and civil society members. Forced to seek alternative methods of documenting, organizing and rallying together, social media has become a recourse. “The internet is at the forefront of this confrontation between society and the state”, explains Ghaemi. Amin Sabeti, a digital security expert, stresses that these blackouts will not be the regime’s last. They represent the most effective tool, in Sabeti’s opinion, of the regime to exert control over the Iranian people and the flows of information in, out and around the country.

The barren digital rights landscape extends to press freedom; Iran is one of the world’s most repressive environments for journalists – ranked 178th out of 180, only above Eritrea and North Korea. In the absence of trustworthy media, documentation accounts on social media have become the lifeblood of the resistance. Pages such as 1500tasvir (1500 images), active on Instagram and Twitter, receive and share vital on-the-ground footage – otherwise rare. By design, the fate of these resistance accounts is tied to the social media platforms they use – and the murky algorithm that controls them. Throughout the protests, 1500tasvir account’s activities, like others, have been constrained and posts about the protests have been removed. This is not the making of the Iranian regime, but Instagram’s.

For Ghaemi, Big Tech has become a significant “independent actor”, whose decisions “have huge ramifications for the societies that rely on these networks”. A further look into the content moderation process of Meta, Instagram’s parent company, reveals blatant interference. Two Persian content moderators recently revealed to the BBC that they had been offered bribes of up to $10,700 by Iranian intelligence officials to remove the Instagram accounts of anti-regime journalists and activists.

Meta has shown that content moderation has become a political decision. Recently, its hate speech guidelines were altered to allow for posts that called for violence against Russian officials during Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. That the same policies have not been applied to Iran’s situation contributes to the sense among Iranians, as articulated by Sabeti, that they simply “do not care”.

For observers, the conversation on social media seems one-sided. They point out that while Iranian officials with blood on their hands can tweet freely – the documentation of their crimes is targeted. By failing to take meaningful action Big Tech platforms are, in effect, benefitting the Iranian regime. The problem, for Rashidi, is that tech companies do not want to dedicate the resources to connect with Iranian civil society and internet freedom experts, with those who understand the context and who have links inside Iran. He stresses that if Meta “believes in human rights and tech”, it is critical that they establish these links.

All too often, Western media portrays Iran as a black box. For Mortazavi, the effect is dehumanizing. Politics, but also lack of access to credible information, underpin this portrayal – meaning tech platforms could play a role in redressing the issue. The coverage obscures a defiant civil society and everyday acts of bravery. Despite this, the ongoing protests show a nation standing in defiance.

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