The politics of Facebook in Iran

Babak Rahimi Elham Gheytanchi
1 June 2009

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been and remains one of the world’s harshest censors of the Internet, frequently blocking sites that are deemed “immoral” and politically offensive to the unelected authorities in power. Dissident bloggers and journalists of diverse ethnic, political and religious backgrounds are imprisoned and at times even executed for expressing their views online. Websites like “Virgin Atlantic” and “the American Anthropological Association” are blocked for merely containing words or phrases that are perceived anti-Islamic by the ruling elites in Tehran. In many ways, the Internet is viewed by the ruling clerics as potentially a dangerous domain, which requires harsh measures to control its content. There are paradoxes in this issue like other aspects of politics in Iran; the government censoring of the Internet does not follow a systematic pattern and the more famous the blogger the harder it is for the authorities to harass her/him. The recent death of Mirsayafi in the Evin prison - a less known blogger with an obscure blog who insulted the supreme leader - demonstrates these paradoxes well.

Babak Rahimi is an assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the Program for the Study of Religion, University of California, San Diego.

Elham Gheytanchi is a sociology instructor at Santa Monica College. She writes on the Iranian Women's Rights Activist Movement in the Huffington post and other major publications.

In February 2009, however, Iranian authorities took an unusual step of unblocking the popular social networking website of Facebook. Surprisingly, the move coincided with the authorities’ relentless push to block a number of dissident websites ahead of the presidential elections, scheduled in June this year. By mid-April, Internet censorship saw even harsher measures when the parliament passed a bill that ratified greater control of the Net, including a clause that required presidential candidates to register their blogs and websites with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for campaigning online. Social networking sites are becoming increasingly popular. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a reformist presidential candidate, is on the twitter. Amid an increasing regime of censorships, many Iranians, particularly younger people, are swiftly launching personal and collective forums to interact on the popular website. Facebook is now the most famous social networking site in Iran.

So why unblock Facebook and, at the same time, limit access to other sites online? One plausible answer is that the authorities randomly censor to give the appearance of being in control in a treacherous territory. The other explanation is that it is election season and, with a controversial administration in power, it may seem that the authorities tend to permit some social freedom so to encourage younger people to vote. Since higher electoral participation can be a sign of state legitimacy, the authorities tend to relax their repressive measures before elections in order to create a false sense of freedom for the populace. It is known as ‘fazaye baz-e entekhabati’ which translates to ‘the open and fair election times’. Another interpretation, upheld by many in Iran, adopts a more conspiratorial position: by unblocking Facebook and creating a false sense of open and fair elections, the intelligence services are able to monitor the activities of dissidents, who may feel more comfortable to express their views on Facebook as a social networking forum instead of a registered personal website which can be easily identified and targeted by the authorities. After all, surveillance goes a long way to secure the elite.

But the primary reason lies in an attempt by the state to bolster its legitimacy through a strategy of selective social openings. By unblocking Facebook, the state flexes its muscles by displaying how it maintains the ability to grant (some) social freedoms. By conceding small amounts of liberty, the regime also hopes to gain approval for its ‘progressive’ nature. In a significant way, the authorities are pursuing a “dual” policy: one that combines complex schemes of restriction and openness with continued promotion of state authority over the Iranian public sphere. Such selective political openings lend a measure of legitimacy to a regime that sees the promotion of its authority through shared spaces of interaction like Facebook in a way to consolidate power.

In the late 1990s, when the use of Internet began to grow as a newly recognized medium of communication and exchange of information with considerable regional and global reach for the Iranian society, especially the younger generation, the state-led censorship measures over the Internet largely included reactive attempts to filter net activity, arresting web designers and enacting restrictions over the ISPs. Similar to Cuba or Saudi Arabia, the regime would monitor what was produced online and prevented the flow of information by establishing state-run Internet sites while limiting the private sector access to cyberspace. Private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would have to officially register and impose a filtering system approved by the state.

With the 2001 presidential elections, which saw the reelection of the reformist Khatami to power, control over the Internet expanded. In January 2002, the supreme council ordered its most important censorship measure in the form of a commission to create a list of “illegal” sites to shut down. At the same time, the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Shahroudi, called for the “establishment of a special committee for legal investigation of Internet-related crimes and offenses,” and proposed the creation of a new legal office. From 2002 to 2003, the conservative establishment began to acquire sophisticated filtering programs from China and U.S. companies based in Dubai. In the second part of Khatami’s presidency (2001-2005) the popular appeal of the Internet seemed to wane as reformists and other dissidents faced continued repression from the conservative factions who in the parliamentary elections of February 2004 consolidated power with the help of the conservative-dominated clerical institution, the Guardian Council, which permitted only conservative candidates to run for elections.

The victory of the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election marked a clear and present danger for the future of online political activism. The expansion of censorship by the hard-liner regime of Ahmadinejad was bound to affect the ways in which political dissent could be expressed online. While the hardliners held a tight grip on the public sphere through the conservative legal machinery, Iranian bloggers and online journalists began to face increased pressures. With the arrest and eventual execution of a number of bloggers by 2008 and the sophisticated use of filtering system, it became obvious that the state had begun to further expand its censorship strategies.

Under Ahmadinejad the Islamic Republic created a new censoring committee that would consist of three representatives from national TV which is under direct control of the supreme Leader, Ministry of Information and Ministry of Islamic Guidance. There is now a center in Sepah that manages the “Cyber crimes”. This newly-founded unit basically prosecutes bloggers who dissents and their alleged crime is “to threaten national security”. Sepah is now producing a program – broadcast on national TV - called “Gerdab” that is designed to expose bloggers, show them as immoral people and then prosecute them. Not surprisingly, the theocratic Iranian state reserves its harshest punishments for those accused of immorality.

In this light, though, the Islamic Republic also seems to use certain proactive control measures, which work indirectly through devices that promote state authority (e.g.-regime sponsored web programs, e-government services, state-controlled ISPs, and above all, self-censorship to curb the democratic drive of the Internet). Though not as sophisticated as China, the Iranian state has learned the advantages of the Internet and, in many ways, unblocking Facebook should be viewed in this complex reactive-proactive strategic process toward consolidating state power.

In spite of the state’s attempt to exert power, however such new social openings have provided new opportunities for the dissidents to challenge the state. Since February this year, student and women activists have begun to increasingly organize discussion groups and political meetings online, while other sites are used to promote human right causes and the release of political prisoners. The reformist candidate, Mousavi, the heir to former president Khatami, maintains a Facebook page. Musavi’s facebook page was filtered for couple of days just recently. When his supporters objected, Ahmadinejad denied any knowledge of such attempts and the next day the site was up and running again. Leading reformist activists like Mohammad Reza Abtahi, Karim Arghand-Pour, Said Shariati use the site to build up support against the hardliner regime in power. In these sites, the supporters of reformist candidates would send the speeches of their candidates and invite each other to communicate their political views and organize meetings via SMS, Twitter (recently a popular device among the young), YouTube and blogs. “Do not vote for Ahmadinejad!” is now a popular slogan circulating on the reformists’ Facebook sites. “I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who dislike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” has also been the most popular anti-Ahamdinejad page on Facebook with many adherents based in Iran.

Moreover, young Iranians of diverse political and religious background, including the persecuted Bahais, gays, lesbians and trans-sexuals, have overtly identify their marginalized identities on Facebook and have joined various discussion groups in order to debate as whether to participate in the elections. They openly discuss the possibility of electoral fraud and the intervention of Revolutionary Guard and the Basij in the electoral process, a major taboo in the country’s official print-media publications. Amid these expanding discussion groups, various NGOs have promoted their cause, despite facing persecution for using regular blogs and websites.

Though such outspoken Facebook discussions would not likely have any long-term effect on Iranian politics, they have created instances of defiance against an authoritarian regime that has denied its citizens basic civil rights—particularly the freedom of expression. In light of such a threat, on May 23, access to Facebook was once more blocked. Surprisingly, the move followed yet again another move to unblock the site on May 26, just three days after it was filtered. According to reformist newspapers, the regime was finally forced to unblock the website because of Iranian users “vehemently protesting” the regime’s censorship policy ahead of the elections. Though the main reason behind unblocking the website remains unknown, it is highly likely that the state has recognized that once some social freedoms are granted, it would be difficult to deny them to a public with a more profound understanding of itself in a less restricted medium of interaction-especially in virtual space. The potential threat of a strategy of selective political openings, therefore, is that Islamic Republic would have to ultimately deal with an offline community of Facebook activists demanding a more open society regardless of an expanding state control over the Iranian public sphere.

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