This news follows closely upon a number of other recent stories that indicate the challenge that technology poses to the Iranian regime’s repression of Western influence and criminalization of dissent. For instance, recent security updates to the photo-sharing service Instagram have effectively destroyed a scheme that was previously touted by the regime for “smart filtering” of undesirable content.
Such changes only add to an already substantial capability of the young and tech savvy Iranian population to bypass restrictions placed on online content. Facebook and Twitter are banned across-the-board in the Islamic Republic, but citizens routinely violate this ban through the use of proxy servers and other technical tricks.
The relative freedom that such evasion provides is being applied on an even broader scale, as evidenced by a recent report in The Guardian detailing how some Iranian authors and publishers are moving to e-publication in order to avoid heavy government censorship. The growth of Tinder in Iran indicates that the internet and social media are now also being used to secure new dimensions of social freedom in addition to providing some measure of freedom in the sharing of news, information, and political views.
This is not to say that the internet insulates Iranians from all risk of government repression in response to online activities. Indeed, the Iranian courts regularly bring cases against citizens on such vague charges as “insulting the supreme leader” or “spreading corruption,” solely on the basis of remarks posted on Facebook.
Indeed, by some accounts the enforcement of these sorts of restrictions is growing as the regime fights back against the liberating qualities of the internet and social media. What’s more, that amplified enforcement appears to be part of a more general hardline crackdown that has seen such retrograde political initiatives as the “plan to promote virtue and prevent vice,” which human rights activists have blamed for encouraging a series of acid attacks on improperly veiled women beginning in late 2014.
The same broad-based crackdown has led to an apparent boost in attempts at censorship, even if these attempts are sometimes counteracted by technological and social trends among the civilian population. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported on Friday that the regime had charged a member of the Board of Directors of the Iranian Writers’ Association with printing an illegal publication despite the fact that the publication in question resumed operations four years ago, has since published only nine issues, and is exclusively internal to the organization.
The same individual, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, was also charged with “propaganda against the state,” with the regime citing all posts on the Iranian Writers’ Association’s Facebook page as evidence. The organization routinely commented upon free speech issues and criticized examples of government censorship. Its Facebook page has now been locked down by the regime in an apparent effort to censor the very acknowledgment of the regime’s reputation for censorship.
Amidst a rising tide of challenges to the regime’s censorship and social repression, Tehran is in some respects making an earnest effort to combat alternative social trends, as with the explicit filtering and banning of online content. But at the same time, the crackdown on negative references to that censorship points to a parallel strategy of attempting to trick Iranian citizens into a measure of compliance.
An earlier report by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran indicated the Basij, a civilian militia controlled and directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had launched its own instant messaging app for smartphones in hopes of both drawing users away from banned applications and giving the state access to the content of voluntary users’ messages.
But notwithstanding these efforts, the consistent and growing popularity of banned resources including Facebook, Twitter, and now Tinder suggest that the regime has its work cut out for it in trying to counteract domestic trends toward free speech and the evasion of government control.