Social Media Beats Censorship in Iran

The vigorous debate over censorship shows how much Iran has changed in recent years.


In the first days of January, a meme spread through Iran. The image featured Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Jahromi drop-kicking the logos of Tor, an encrypted proxy network, and several social media platforms—a reference to the Iranian government's ban of the messaging service Telegram in response to protests in late December.

On January 4, the meme ended up on the front page of Ghanoon, a newspaper aligned with the country's liberal Reformist movement. The same day, Jahromi reposted it on his Instagram account along with the caption: "The National Security Council—which the Telecommunications Ministry is not part of—has decided, along with other security measures, to impose temporary restrictions on cyberspace in order to establish peace…instead of addressing the roots of the protests and unrest, some are trying to blame cyberspace."

The minister's acknowledgment that the crackdown was ill-advised would foreshadow a reversal in Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's response to the unrest.

As small economic protests encouraged by the Conservative opposition suddenly went nationwide last year, Telegram—used by more than 13 million Iranians—lit up with both credible information and viral rumors. At first, Rouhani's Reformist administration walked the line between defending the right to "criticize and protest" and condemning "solutions to the problems of society in the streets."

Rouhani, who campaigned for re-election last year on the nuclear deal and other pro-trade measures, began his latest term calling for a more open internet. But police eventually detained several hundred people, and at least 21 were killed in street fighting. When the Telegram channel AmadNews encouraged protesters to use firebombs, Jahromi publicly asked the platform's founder, Pavel Durov, to censor the channel. Durov complied, catching flak from Edward Snowden.

Durov refused further requests by Iranian authorities, prompting the "temporary" restrictions on Telegram, which have become known as "The Filtering."

Telegram users responded, as they always do, with memes. The popular channel Talkhand-Siyâsi soon filled up with sarcastic advertisements for air filters and GIFs of former president cum conspiracy theorist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran has a well-developed tradition of political caricature dating back to the 1905 Constitutional Revolution. Old-school cartoonists Mehdi Fard and Mohammad Tehani joined the contretemps, mocking Rouhani's promise that "the telecommunications minister's hand shall not touch the 'filtering' button."

The vigorous debate over censorship shows how much Iran—where the elected government often comes into conflict with powerful unelected authorities—has changed in recent years. Increased international trade, electoral victories by Reformists including Rouhani, and a growing number of tech startups have opened up society despite intense pushback from hardline Conservatives in the military and judiciary.

But the reaction to the online censorship was not just a matter of cultural freedom. According to the pro-market newspaper Donya-e-Eqtesad, over 9,000 firms, many of which use Telegram to conduct sales and talk to clients, lost business to the ban. Rouhani himself alluded to the economic damage in a January 8 speech promising social reforms.

In an Instagram post that same day, Jahromi admitted that "we are now in a situation where our sovereign state and other nations of the world do not have the ability to regulate international social networks." Some 25 percent of Iranians use virtual private networks, software that allows people to avoid internet restrictions, he observed.

On January 13, the messaging app was finally unblocked by order of the president. The move came despite the efforts of "hardliners who wanted to force the government to keep the Telegram blocked forever," says Reza Ghazinouri, a refugee and former activist at the University of Tehran who now runs United for Iran, a nonprofit in San Francisco.

Some questioned why the administration had earlier passed responsibility on to the National Security Council, whose members are appointed by both elected officials and religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "How can it be that when a matter threatens the state, the decision rests with a security institution," asked an editorial in Tabnak, a newspaper connected to the Iranian military's influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, "but as soon as the unblocking is announced, to the benefit of the president and the government, they attribute it directly to Hasan Rouhani?"

The December protests have sparked a debate over what Iran's working class wants. The ruling coalition is proposing more liberal reforms as a solution, while hardline Conservatives are calling for a rollback of free market policies. Thanks to the internet's growing influence, the result may be a foregone conclusion.

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  1. When there was the whole controversy of “white supremacists” having blue checkmarks on Twitter and the fucktard proggies who argued that meant Twitter was endorsing their views, I repeatedly brought up the fact that President Rouhani has a blue checkmark Twitter account, and not only does the man deny the Holocaust happen, call for the annihiliation of Israel and eradicating Jews, and execute homosexuals and rape victims, he bans Twitter from his entire fucking country so no Iranians can even see his tweets.

    I was called an Islamophobe. “Well that’s different”, they said.

    1. I was called an Islamophobe. “Well that’s different”, they said.

      Are you sure you didn’t mistake the “fucktard proggies” for Reason staff writers?

    2. Fucktard proggies gonna fucktard. Otherwise they might have to engage their brain.

  2. we are now in a situation where our sovereign state and other nations of the world do not have the ability to regulate international social networks

    This is what makes me optimistic for the future. Iran is no better off controlling today’s tech than the USSR was controlling fax machines and modems. The US government has it even worse.

    Meanwhile, the EU is so far behind, tech-wise, that all they can think of is new taxes on Google, FaceBook, and other US tech companies based on revenue instead of profit, which means more ads to pay them. I despise how Google, FaceBook, Twitter, and others think themselves powerful enough to censor society, but it will come back to bite them in the ass when distributed versions spring up, needing no huge data centers and fewer ads to make a profit, attracting both ad-haters and censor-haters.

    And all the people shouting about competition and monopolies will soon forget the behemoths which used to be in control.

    1. Meanwhile back here in reality the telecoms and huge social media giants will continue to cozy up to the federal government until they are able to establish themselves as regulated utilities in exchange for an exclusive monopoly. At which point the US government will directly determine what traffic and content is allowed on the networks like the old Bell system. And Reason will be running gushing stories about how it is a sign of the inevitable march of technological progress and freedom.

      1. Yeah, his assessment seemed exceedingly rosy. He must’ve missed the vote to overturn section 230, and Zuckerberg practically endorsing the notion, against the backdrop of unyielding advance of FISA and domestic surveillance. Well before Trump the US has felt that it has fallen behind Europe and China in securing its citizens digital assets on their behalf (with or without their consent). The idea that the establishment is on its heels or even back-pedaling seems amiss. It rather seems like fully-ostracized and crumbling hell-holes like Cuba, Venezuela, N. Korea, and Iran are more than capable of keeping the internet and opposition organized around it in check. It doesn’t quite stand to reason that the US couldn’t possibly do it.

        1. Mesh networks will loosen that control. Distributed social networks will loosen that control.

          One of the dumbest things the controllers did was bust Napster; they won the centralized battle of little importance and have lost the decentralized war which followed. History will repeat itself with social networks.

    2. “Iran is no better off controlling today’s tech ”

      Maybe they are good enough. Those demonstrations fizzled out after a short while and the regime is still there.

  3. Iran has a well-developed tradition of political caricature dating back to the 1905 Constitutional Revolution. Old-school cartoonists Mehdi Fard and Mohammad Tehani joined the contretemps, mocking Rouhani’s promise that “the telecommunications minister’s hand shall not touch the ‘filtering’ button.”

    Not to be a jerkoff or anything, but I’m assuming these guys aren’t Muslim since this is patently against their faith…

    1. Not to be a jerkoff or anything”

      Perish the thought. As the author pointed out, these are members of Iran’s Old-school of cartoonists, Muslims who are notoriously against their faith.

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