Try as it might, Iran can’t ban social media

By Esfandyar Batmanghelidj / BLOOMBERG

Iran’s National Cyberspace Council is planning to block Instagram, the last social media platform freely accessible in the country.

This is unlikely to trouble Iranian Instagrammers, who will continue to use the platform through virtual private networks, or VPNs, that route traffic through Internet connections abroad. This easy workaround allows Iranians to evade government filters and access banned platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and use messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.

It will be instructive to see what President Hassan Rouhani does when the ban, which is backed by Iran’s conservative judiciary, takes effect — he has over 2.2 million Instagram followers.

Many senior officials, including Cabinet ministers and parliamentarians, openly flout the bans on Twitter and Telegram.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has over 500,000 followers on his English-language Twitter and 2.3 million on his Persian language Instagram. Communications firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe ranks Khamenei and Rouhani as among the “most effective” world leaders on Instagram, just behind US President Donald Trump.

The plan to ban Instagram despite its use by the Islamic Republic’s highest officials shows that Iran’s leadership has not yet decided how it feels about social media, and is struggling to find a middle path between the unfettered access enjoyed by much of the world and China’s walled-garden approach.

Ambitious official plans to develop a closed-loop Iranian “national Internet” with social media and messaging platforms that can be monitored by the government — akin to China’s Sina Weibo and WeChat — have come to nothing, as have efforts to filter international platforms.

It is not clear that Iranian authorities have the ability to prevent unauthorised VPN use, as China has sought to do. Tracking down users is not easy. Many VPNs are free, and don’t require credit card payments.

In any case, unlike in Beijing, there is no consensus in Tehran over what should and shouldn’t be allowed.

Rouhani and his communications minister, Mohammad Javad Azar Jahromi, have advocated more open access to social media. Khamenei is more conservative, but his own use of Western platforms betrays an ambivalence about the opportunity and threat they represent.

This uncertainty has allowed a social media ecosystem to thrive. Iranian celebrities, athletes, news organisations — even obnoxious rich kids — have established large followings on Western platforms, which have become a leading source of information and entertainment.

And many Iranian businesses routinely use social media and messaging apps for digital marketing and e-commerce: Consider the Instagram account of Kalleh, a leading dairy company, or of Digikala, Iran’s answer to Amazon.

Blocking Instagram will technically criminalise a key part of the business model for countless retailers, advertisers and influencers — though many companies will likely carry on regardless, just as they have flouted the ban on Telegram.

For ordinary Iranians, these apps, used in conjunction with VPNs, allow a space for conversation and contention — in a kind of digital public square.

Many are also using them to identify government failings and demand accountability, by directly communicating with politicians and officials who are active on social media.

Social media campaigns have recently been instrumental in forcing officials to allow women in sports stadiums, to get teachers a raise and draw attention to environmental causes.

Every now and again, a social media campaign can humble a major public figure. In late December, Mohsen Rezaee, secretary of the powerful Expediency Council and formerly commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, tweeted that one ill-fated operation, which cost thousands of lives, had been a deliberate “military deception” by Iran.

The notion that so many Iranians had been sacrificed for a deception was met with outrage: Rezaee’s tweet was “ratioed”, receiving 4,000 (mostly angry) comments and just 2,400 likes.

Even Qassem Soleimani, leader of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force, felt compelled to deny Rezaee’s characterisation.

Just 48 hours after his tweet, Rezaee was forced to apologise. Political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam, speaking at an event hosted by the Ministry of Information and Communications, pointed out that “it was cyberspace that forced (Rezaee) to withdraw, not the Parliament, the Intelligence Ministry, the prosecutor’s office, nor any other government institution”.

Forcing a military commander to retreat on Twitter may not seem like an existential threat to the Iranian government — certainly not of the order of the 2009 Green Revolution, when protesters used Twitter to organise themselves and draw global attention.

But conservative factions in Iran’s leadership are worried, nonetheless.

At the ministry event, Zibakalam was candid enough to admit to being “scared” by the power of social media.

The plan to ban Instagram is a product of fear.

But in practical terms, the ban is no more than symbolic, an empty gesture of reassurance toward the fearful.

Iran’s experience with the Russian messaging app Telegram is more revealing. It was banned with effect from April 30 last year, ostensibly because it had become a “safe haven for criminal acts”. (Among other things, it was said to have been used by currency traders to spread rumours, fuelling the panic buying of US dollars and the crash of the Iranian rial.)

Dutifully, conservative politicians deactivated their Telegram channels ahead of the ban.

To try and gain control of Telegram, the government sought to position a set of locally developed Telegram “clients”, which would serve as a passthrough — giving Iranians access to some channels, but not others.

While the local Telegram clients did see some uptake in use, eventually most users found VPNs to get around the ban altogether.

According to a study conducted at the University of Tehran, daily visits to Iranian Telegram channels fell from 2.4 billion to just 850 million per day immediately after the ban.

But just two weeks later, the number was up to 1.6 billion visits. By November, even the conservative politicians had returned to Telegram.

So, if Rouhani does suddenly vanish from Instagram, his 2.2 million followers needn’t despair — he’ll be back soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.