From the alleys of Twitter to the cobblestone streets and from the recriminations of Instagram to the avenues of protest, there is only one step. And the Iranian regime has understood this well. The country is shaken by demonstrations of anger, following the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by the morality police. And bloody repression. A hundred people were killed by the authorities, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights. To limit gatherings and increase its control over the population, the Iranian regime has severely limited Internet access.
“Kill and wound in the dark”
Already on September 19, three days after Mahsa Amini’s death, the NetBlocks site, which monitors Internet blockades around the world, noted a service interruption in certain regions of the Kurdistan province – where the young man-. “They are localized cuts in time and space, sometimes affecting a large part of the country, sometimes areas where the regime is about to start repression,” deciphers the historian specialized in Iran Jonathan Piron.
Many associations received the news with anguish. On Instagram, the NGO Amnesty International expressed concern that these cuts and censorship allow authorities to “kill and injure more protesters in the dark.” “The regime’s goal is to cut off the Internet, the telephone, the Iranians’ access to the free world and do what they want with their people: kill them,” said sociologist and political scientist Mahnaz Shirali.
Social Media Search
Tehran has restricted access to social media for years. “Social networks are very popular in Iran, especially WhatsApp, Telegram and Instagram,” lists Jonathan Piron. Back in 2006, Iranian authorities were accused of censoring more sites than any other country except China. YouTube, Twitter, the BBC, Netflix, TikTok… All these sites have been gradually banned in the Middle Eastern country; however, many members of the government have a Twitter account. Instagram and WhatsApp, international apps that had hitherto resisted the regime’s relentless censorship, were shut down on September 21.
But if the regime censors many sites, social networks are a particular target. “Social networks have become both a window on Iran, allowing one to see what is happening there from abroad, and a window that allows Iranians to see the free world, outside”, image Mahnaz Shirali. “These platforms have great potential to channel the anger of young Iranians for several years and that has scared the Iranian regime, which does not want social cohesion to create a revolution,” adds the author of Window to Iran, the cry of a gagged people.
“There is no on/off button”
As in France, Iranian protesters write online, organize, meet. By censoring the most popular social networks and prohibiting access to app stores (Google Play/Apple Store), the Iranian regime is silencing a large part of the population. Some Iranians were already using VPNs, which encrypt user traffic and connect it to a remote server, or the Tor network to bypass Tehran’s dominance of the network.
“Censorship was already daily in Iran, and many Iranians circumvented it on a daily basis,” Mahnaz Shirali stresses. But some Internet users are helpless. Especially since the regime has other threads in its favor. “Telephone operators are deactivated, the regime prevents certain operators from giving Internet access to their users, at the level of a region or a city,” explains Jonathan Piron. “The cuts are sporadic and quite random, there is no on/off button”, however, specifies the researcher within Etopia. In the late afternoon and evening, restrictions increase, as does the risk of gatherings.
He retransmits images “at the risk of his life”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accuses the West – and in particular its sworn enemies, the United States and Israel – of having encouraged these demonstrations. Iranian authorities believe that the Internet is a Western tool to destabilize the country. “For a long time, the Iranian regime has wanted to have an intranet that would allow it to control everything that circulates in the country. Iran has acquired real knowledge in this area,” says Jonathan Piron. In 2019 and 2020, during the great demonstrations against the increase in fuel prices, the electricity cut off all Internet access for three days. And he suppressed the protest with blood.
But this technique, systematically used by Tehran, is “a double-edged sword”, explains Mahnaz Shirali. “All the country’s administrations are connected to the Internet, they cannot be completely cut off in the long term since their entire organization, their coordination, goes through the Internet”, illustrates the specialist in Iran. So when censorship is so strong that no tools, including VPNs and Tor, can bypass it, some Iranians opt for the physical maneuver. “Some very clever young people approach public buildings to clandestinely connect to their WiFi and transmit their images of repression… At the risk of their lives. Because despite everything, adds Mahnaz Shirali, “the more we talk about it, the more we protect the population.”