Swiping Left to a Brighter Future in Iran

May 19, 20170 comments

This article was originally published by Huffington Post.

On Friday, the Iranian people will head to the ballot box to cast their vote, in a critical presidential election that will have great implications for civil liberties in Iran. For the past decade, mobile phone apps have played a prominent role in the outcomes of Iran’s presidential elections, and this year is proving to be no different.


While the story starts in 2009, it’s important to note that different forms of socio-political technology such as social media platforms and mobile apps have, and continue to evolve under the strict internet and digital environment in Iran. The pattern is similar to an evolving digital game of whack-a-mole. An app or a website is embraced by netizens, which then becomes restricted by government censures, only to pop up again as a different platform or app. What started with Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has most certainly evolved.


In 2009, following the disputed election results that favored the hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi known as the Green Movement, took to streets in the form of large scale demonstrations protesting the final vote tally. The regime’s security forces clamped down on journalists and protesters, resulting in a trickle of official news reports from foreign and domestic news outlets, and as a result, the Green movement became the first major world event broadcast across the world almost entirely via social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.


And who could forget Neda Agha-Solton, the young Iranian woman whose last breaths went viral as video of her death was broadcast on just about any device with a screen. Twitter became so powerful in disseminating the events on the ground in Iran in 2009, that the Obama administration in wanting to help anti-government protesters, prevented Twitter from initiating a pre-planned temporary shutdown to overhaul its service. Which isn’t surprising given that during week 15-19 of June, 98 percent of all links shared on Twitter were about Iran.


Interestingly, four years after massive street protests shook the core of the establishment, presidential candidates in 2013 embraced social media as a helpful tool to connect and organize voters on everything from opinions, policy positions, as well as information about upcoming campaign rallies. Hassan Rouhani proved his campaign was the most well equipped with Iran’s young and tech savvy voters, as he won a decisive victory in the first round of voting.


Twitter once again proved useful in 2013, but the encrypted mobile messaging app Telegram stole the digital spotlight, proving the growing obsolete functionality of traditional campaigning. Telegram was widely considered as a game-changing campaigning tool in the 2013 election as its quick rise proved how immensely popular the app is inside Iran. In 2014 and 2015, it was estimated that there were over 15 million Iranians using Telegram, with many new users installing the app ahead of the 2013 presidential election. The February 2016 parliamentary elections officially solidified Telegram’s platform as a socio-political influencer. Candidates aligned with President Rouhani unseated many of the hardline conservative parliamentary opponents through campaign ads on Telegram and Telegram bots. The messaging app’s effect on the outcome of the election was so powerful that Iranian media reports claimed the app “changed the outcome of the election.”


As we walk into this week’s presidential election, according to Telegram’s chief executive Pavel Durov, the app has over 40 million users in Iran; that’s half of the country’s 80 million strong population. With over 40 million smartphones in Iran and, a million more are added every month, the numbers add up. We have yet to see the impact of social media and tech on this week’s election, but the election this week continues to prove that no matter how hard the Iranian regime restricts its citizens from social media and the internet, technology will continue to create cracks in the regime’s firewall of censorship.


A few weeks ago, United for Iran, in collaboration with IranWire and Small Media released a new app, Sandoogh96 (Vote2017). Sandoogh96 provides Iranian voters with information about the candidates and their stances on various issues including Iran’s relationship with the West, the country’s ailing economy, and the controversial house arrests of opposition leaders.


The app provides up-to-date election news related to candidates for the presidential election as well as the local council elections. Maziar Bahari, Director of IranWire explained, “Sandoogh96 fills the gap in election coverage in Iran by enabling users to learn the real news about the potential candidates free from any pro or against Islamic Republic prejudice. It provides Iranian people a space which their government systematically denies them.”


And while new technology may play a big role in Iran’s elections, it is unclear what the future holds in regards to Iran’s tech environment. If hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi wins Friday’s vote, it would certainly spell trouble for digital activists and civil liberty groups inside the country.


Raisi is one of the worst human rights violators in Iran history. He was one of the four main figures, dubbed the Death Committee, who ordered the 1988 executions of thousands of political prisoners.


President Rouhani has campaigned on liberalizing internet restrictions and granting more freedoms to Iranian civil society. Although there have been modest openings under his watch, his administration has had its hands tied by reactionary and influential clerics who push back against cultural and social reforms.


More importantly, Iran’s president heads the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, which controls the domestic internet policy by supervising and directing which websites should be blocked. Since its inception in 2012, the council and its members, whom are all selected by the Supreme Leader, have taken a hardline approach to internet censorship, often competing with Rouhani’s Ministry of Information and Communications who has generally pushed back against additional digital restrictions. A Raisi win this Friday could open the flood gates of internet restrictions by removing a significant barrier that the hardline council has fought against over the past four years, Rouhani himself. Hopefully, the rising influence of technology in Iran’s political space can stop him.