A hard line for hardliners?
by Sarah Myers West | Nov 18 2015
The Iranian government’s ambivalence toward social media platforms was recently put on display during a conflict with the photo-sharing site Instagram. Just days before the 26th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death, the site deleted—then reinstated—an account dedicated to Iran’s revolutionary leader. The account posted rare photos of Khomeini in commemoration of the leader and had 100,000 followers shortly before it was removed.
The account deletion was announced by Iranian media, who said “Instagram in an email announced the deletion of the page...and only provided the automated generic text banning violent, pornographic or advertisement content”. In response the government replaced the account with a new one, @EmamKhomeiny.
Instagram provides limited grounds for users to appeal the shutdown of their accounts, indicating that users may be able to appeal the decision to remove an account by opening the app, entering their username and password and following the on-screen instructions. In this instance, it reinstated the account several days later. However, it remains unclear why the account was taken down in the first place as it does not appear to have violated any of Instagram’s community guidelines.
Iran has had a tenuous relationship with social media platforms, many of which are banned in the country but are used by many high-level politicians including President Hassan Rouhani. Iran has banned Facebook and Twitter since the revolutions of 2009, during which social media were widely used to express dissent.
Instagram is uniquely treated in Iran, however, because it was chosen as the test case for Iran’s new smart filtering system, which censors individual accounts or types of content while allowing access to most of the site’s content. Under this system only certain user accounts are blocked, such as @RichkidsofTehran, which features photos of young Iranians flaunting their wealth, as well as a number of fashion, commerce, and celebrity accounts such as those of Madonna, Rihanna, Beyonce and Justin Bieber. It is unlikely the smart filter system will continue working when Instagram fully implements HTTPS encryption, according to research by Frederic Jacobs. “The lack of HTTPS on Instagram allowed Iran to not only filter content on the platform, but also find out who is browsing what,” Jacobs told Motherboard.
Until then, however, Instagram continues to flourish among Iranians. Both accounts have done well since being reinstated: @emamkhomeini currently has 112,000 followers, and @emamkhomeiny has 25,800 followers, and a growing number of copycat accounts: @emam_khomeini, @khomeini_quote, @khameini_cyber, @khamenei_lovers and @khomeinifan, just to name a few.