On Monday, Agence-France Presse reported that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had joined the Twitter social networking and micro-blogging platform, in spite of the fact that his presidency had been instrumental in the banning of the site throughout the Islamic Republic. The move is the latest in a series of indicators that the regime’s hardline faction may be changing its tactics with regard to certain technologies, even as it continues to combat social media and the internet in other areas.
Twitter was a major resource used in the organization of massive protests stemming from Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 reelection. After the violent suppression of the Green Movement, Twitter was blocked by Iran’s cyberspace authorities, thus joining a range of other websites that are obstructed on the basis of content deemed unlawful or immoral by the clerical regime. Nevertheless, citizens of the Islamic Republic have continued to access Twitter in large numbers, through the use of proxy servers and other resources that allow them to circumvent government firewalls.
This situation has led to a situation in which more and more Iranian officials are reportedly coming to accept Twitter as a necessary evil. But on some level, many of these officials had already accepted this, as evidenced by the fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, current President Hassan Rouhani and various others have long maintained their own Twitter accounts.
In previous reporting on this topic, Iran News Update suggested that emerging tolerance of Twitter may be indicative of an effort to exploit its mainstream prominence as a tool of propaganda, in order to overwhelm the pro-reform communications on the platform instead of simply suppressing them. Ahmadinejad’s presence on the site may very well play into such a strategy, given his continued popularity among hardline supporters of the regime.
But the embrace of Twitter by figures like Ahmadinejad is by no means a sign of diminishing antagonism toward the free exchange of information online. In fact, Iran News Update previously suggested that that embrace may simply coincide with expanded efforts to suppress newer, less mainstream social media platforms like Telegram.
This less popular platform has gained some popularity among Iran’s activist community because it is generally regarded as more secure than the familiar alternatives. But this supposed security has not prevented Telegram users and administrators from being arrested by regime authorities. In fact, in February the judiciary announced that an unnamed administrator had been arrested and held responsible for more than 14,000 “obscene” video clips and pictures that were shared on the platform.
In its reporting upon that arrest, IranWire noted that regime officials had boasted of an 18,000-person network of volunteers drawn from the Basij civilian militia, who continually monitored the internet and social media.
There is little doubt that the unnamed administrator is being regarded as an example to other users of newer social media resources. And he is not alone in being thus targeted. A more recent IranWire report pointed once again to the case of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Nekoonam, who is serving a five year prison sentence based solely on his verbal defense of high speed internet and other modern technologies.
Nekoonam’s arrest at the beginning of 2015 was a sign of the regime’s attitude toward such views at the time. But his continued detention strongly suggests that that attitude has either remained the same or intensified, since the 68-year-old cleric has been repeatedly returned to prison after brief hospital stays, in defiance of advice from doctors of the Iranian Legal Medicine Organization, who have said that his poor physical health will continue to deteriorate if he is not granted release.