Social media plays 'extremely important' role in Iranian protests despite censorship

Since the 2009 Green Movement protests in Iran, online connectivity has grown significantly, which is why social media is likely playing a much larger role in the demonstrations now rocking the country.

Telegram is the platform of choice but protesters turn to backdoor software and private networks

Demonstrations have spread rapidly across the country, and many Iranians have been using backdoor software and virtual private networks to bypass government censorship. (Associated Press)

Since the 2009 Green Movement protests in Iran, internet connections have grown significantly, which is why social media is likely playing an important role in the anti-government demonstrations rocking the country.

"I believe that has made a tremendous difference between now and then," said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director for the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. "One difference between now and 2009 is that almost the whole nation is now plugged online.

"I think for these protests it's extremely important."

Mahsa Alimardani, an Iranian-Canadian internet researcher, said many Iranians used Twitter during the protests over a disputed election in 2009, mainly to communicate to the outside world. This time Iranians are using social media to communicate with each other.

Demonstrations, the largest in Iran since its disputed 2009 presidential election, have brought days of unrest. (Associated Press)

"It's no exaggeration to say that this time, technology really is playing a central role in allowing people to organize, share information with each other," Alimardani wrote in a column for Politico.

The protests began Thursday in Mashhad and have expanded to several cities. Hundreds of people have been arrested and at least 21 have been killed.

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have sought to suppress the protests in part by shutting down key social media sites protesters use to communicate, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram.

'Played a huge role'

"When you think about the events last weekend in Mashhad and how quickly they were followed up the next day in dozens of far and near cities of Mashhad, one can only surmise that social media played a huge role in disseminating that news and motivating other protesters to be out there within 24 hours," Ghaemi said.

He said these are small networks of people sharing and disseminating the news, not one large outlet that has many followers.

"I wouldn't pin it down on one or two or three particular channels," he said. "I think it's really just people talking to their own circles and communicating with them."

Going viral

"To me this is the meaning of going viral. The protest in Mashhad went viral."

The social media app that likely played the biggest role in fostering communication is Telegram, used for communicating encrypted messages, sharing files and videos with friends and family, and receiving news reports and updates 

It has become the social media platform of choice for Iranians, with an estimated 40 million users out of a population of 80 million.

The use of the app exploded, says Ghaemi, shortly after Iranians got access to 3G and 4G services. It may be surprising that the regime, so intent on censoring and restricting information, would allow such services into Iran. But Ghaemi said with Iran needing to be part of the digital economy, the government really had no choice.

Now many Iranian companies are dependent on Telegram for doing business, meaning the clampdown will have a negative economic impact, he said.

"There's really been such a huge backlash throughout the country because something like Telegram has become very essential to the social economic fabric," he said.

Alimardani told CBC's The Current that the Iranian government reached out to Telegram and asked for curbs to be put in place.

Telegram has become the social media platform of choice for Iranians, with an estimated 40 million users out of a population of 80 million. 'There's really been such a huge backlash throughout the country' because the government censored the service, said human rights advocate Hadi Ghaemi. (CBC)

When the company stopped responding, the government shut down and blocked the only uncensored foreign media platforms, Telegram and Instagram. Disruptions to general internet services followed.

"We can't really know what the effect or the significance of Telegram is for these particular protests, but we can gauge the reaction of the authorities," she said. "Telegram has been popular since 2015, but it's only been in the past few days that they've been really cracking down, becoming sensitive toward it."

Backdoor software

Even before this crackdown, many Iranians were using backdoor software and virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent censorship.

"Iranians have been living under censorship and the prospect of surveillance for years, so I think they're very tech-savvy," Alimardani said.

But the recent restrictions will hamper the ability of large groups of people to communicate, Ghaemi said.

"Not everybody is technically savvy enough to use the software to bypass [the censorship]," he said.

With files from The Associated Press