Insta-Revolt and Digitized Dissent in Iran

By Kaneez Fatima and Waqar Rizvi

Protests are nothing new to Iran. Of late, protests in Iran make headline news across the world with political pundits weighing in with their two cents and international leaders expressing solidarity with people on the streets.

But Iran touts a rich history of protests and people-power. Many people in Iran take immense pride in their ability to have overthrown a monarchy back in 1979, through the power of protests. That spirit of activism still remains ingrained within Iranian society today.

Having partly grown up in the United Arab Emirates, where dissent is non-existent, this was something of a revelation for us during our first few years in Iran. This also did not fit into the popular narrative about Iran that we were fed through mainstream media. The Iranian people – young and old, rich and poor alike – are politically aware, opinionated and active. Political discourse and expression can be witnessed in the streets, in the conversations at trendy coffee shops, and even in the way the youth choose to dress.

And with that kind of political awareness, savviness, and activism, protests aren’t all that unusual in Iran. In fact, for a country plagued by sanctions, an economic downturn and high rates of corruption, protests are pretty much expected to erupt on one issue or another. Iranians, regardless of their political affiliations, are used to getting their voices heard and forcing their elected representatives to listen.

However, if one views the trajectory large protests have taken in Iran, there’s been a familiar – and for many Iranians an all too frustrating – pattern that emerges: protests break out on the streets in an expression of anger against a policy or issue like corruption, the government moves to contain the protests, while Western leaders and media put their full weight behind the protesters and take the opportunity to call for regime change. The narrative gets hijacked, and Iranians are left frustrated at the direction in which things have gone. The bad apples that resort to violence provide the perfect occasion to label the legitimate demonstrations “riots.” Counter rallies are held to express support for the ruling establishment and to condemn foreign interference, while the issues at hand that caused the anger and protests lie forgotten.

Today’s Iranian youth have seen at least three waves of protests following the pattern mentioned above. The stalemate this has created has pushed Iranians to evolve their methods of dissent.

In the 2009 post-election violence that engulfed Iran, though much of the dissent was witnessed on the streets of the country, a lot of that dissent was organized and aired through Twitter. On Twitter, Iranian youth had found a quick and efficient way to organize, while YouTube helped disseminate videos of alleged police crackdown(s), fuelling the anger on the streets. Authorities eventually took steps to ban Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in order to stifle the dissent. Nevertheless, this marked an important step towards Iranians “digitizing” their dissent.

Twitter, YouTube and Facebook still officially remain blocked for Iranians. Those who do access these social media sites use VPNs and proxy servers to circumvent the blocks, but it can sometimes be a cumbersome process. In the wake of these bans, Instagram emerged as an unlikely political platform. While much of the world today views Instagram as a platform for pretty pictures, inspirational posters and Shopify, in Iran the use is slightly (or significantly, depending on how you view it) different.

Instagram enjoys the highest popularity followed closely by Pinterest in Iran’s social media market share for the year 2019. This is unlike in Canada and elsewhere across developed and developing economies, where the top social media platform is Facebook.

If you are anyone worth knowing in Iran, you need to be on Instagram. The platform has become a marketplace for discussing ideas, views and politics. It was the Instagram profile of a little known clergyman from the city of Qom which made headlines in 2018 as he called out the Iranian political elite for its extravagance and corruption. He shared pictures of their palatial homes, luxury cars and over-the-top weddings. When his methods were criticized on national television he held live debates through the Instagram live broadcast tool for his followers.

This clergyman isn’t the only dissenting voice on Instagram. The social media app provides a space for Iranians to not just post their thoughts and views, but its tools have allowed open and democratic discussions on a variety of issues plaguing the country.

The trend hasn’t gone unnoticed. As people in Iran have continued to use Instagram to engage deep, meaningful conversations that have challenged the status-quo of the political and religious elite in the country, Iranian parliamentarians moved to ban the social media app as well.

The government has so far resisted that move and has instead tried to harness the power of Instagram for its own advantage. The young ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Minister in Iran recently tried to have a live Instagram session with ordinary Iranians himself in a bid to increase engagement. Much to many people’s amusement he accidentally flipped the camera-phone to the wrong side, revealing to everyone a good view of the full professional studio set-up that had been put in place for that live broadcast.

And while the government and authorities know that banning Instagram is only going to force Iran’s young and ingenious population into exploring other social media platforms which can allow them to control their own narratives without the threat of falling prey to outside influence, recent events force everyone to tread more cautiously: the latest round of protests to breakout in Iran – organized and mobilized through Instagram and instant messaging apps – was quelled not by blocking a certain app, but rather cutting off Iran from the internet as a whole for a number of days. What replaced it was an intranet which allowed Iranians access to certain internal websites and apps.

Iranian authorities described the experiment as successful. The move quelled the protests and at the same time, demonstrated that the country and its economy may be able to function with the intranet service and limited internet connectivity.

Where will the voices of dissent go from here? It would be interesting to see how the mode of dissent organically grows if the intranet is brought into action. We can hope that through the spirit of protest and dissent itself Iranians can send the message to their elected representatives loud and clear that they will not accept such restrictions. But that’s something to be seen – whether the Iranians are able to mobilize and exert the right kind of pressure and whether Iranian authorities will take notice of it without external forces muddying the waters.

Waqar Rizvi is a Canadian-Pakistani TV host and news anchor and can be reached on Twitter: @waqarhrizvi.

Kaneez Fatima is a Pakistani journalist and commentator and can be reached on Twitter: @Kaneezfatima 

Both have spent over a decade living and working in Iran.

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