As protests in Iran began in mid-September, the government blocked Instagram, the only international social media platform people were allowed to use.
Other platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Telegram were banned after the 2009 Presidential election and in the aftermath of the November 2019 protests.
Despite the bans, Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are present on social media and some have more than one account on every platform. Other Iranians also continue to use social media apps by paying for VPNs [Virtual Private Networks] that allow them to circumvent the ban.
Social media has revolutionized the authoritarian information space in Iran. The government has lost its monopoly on information and desperately tries to control the Internet. Social media has become a town square where citizens gather to criticize and berate the clerical regime.
Abbas Abdi, a reformist pundit who is allowed to express mild criticism of the regime has written to urge the government to follow what people say on social media, because that is where most people are talking. Mentioning the fact that President Ebrahim Raisi has visited all of Iran’s 31 provinces to see how people live and hear their complaints, Abdi told the government in a social media post that they are missing the chance to hear the people in the “largest Iranian province” – social media.
He likened social media to an underprivileged province, saying, "Social media in Iran is like a province with a population of 50 million."
Abdi then reminded the government that "Around 75 percent of Iranians over the age of 18 years use at least one of social media platform, and there are others who simply use the Internet for searching or emailing." He added that "Some 64 percent of these people are on WhatsApp, 45 percent on Instagram, and 36 percent on Telegram."
The commentator highlighted that "This is the statistics from six months ago. Currently, more people are using social media, 20 percent of them for business," and pointed out that the number of social media users is even higher among the youth” with 83 percent using apps for messaging, fun or business.
Abdi further reminded that many Iranians' livelihood depends on their presence on social media while the government has banned these platforms and created problems for many Iranians. He wrote: "The government's reason for blocking social media is that it says 90 percent of Internet content in Iran is under the control of the enemies…If 90 percent of those on social media are your enemies, then, whose government are you?"
Abdi then stated that "At least 20 percent of those on social media in Iran earn their daily” by ecommerce and he asked the government: "Do you know that you are preventing 10 million people from having an income? Do you understand that Iran is suffering from a 40-percent inflation rate? How should these people make a living?"
On 25 October, Iranian sociologist Hossein Abolhassan Tanhaei wrote in an article, which was also posted in a series of tweets, that the government's plan to give discriminatory access to the Internet to various groups of Iranians and prevent each group from accessing certain information "will lead to public anger by giving everyone a reason to believe they have been subject to discrimination."
Tanhaei wrote that currently, people have very little trust in the government and this feeling of discrimination will trigger public anger. Like Abdi, Tanhaei also noted that Iranians running their business on social media platforms will be affected by restricted access more than everyone else, and they will show the most serious reaction to the government's plan.
On 22 October, clerics at the Qom Seminary wrote a letter to Raisi demanding a permanent ban on WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram. Meanwhile, according to reformist daily Arman Melli, the Friday prayer imam of Mashad Ahmad Alamolhoda, Raisi's father-in-law, also called for a ban on Instagram. This comes while, according to the head of Iran's passive defence organization Gholamreza Jalali, "Iranian officials have unrestricted access to Instagram."
According to Jalali, the final decision about the ban on social media will be made by the Supreme Council of National Security, which operates under the President to carry out direct orders coming from Khamenei. Even before the "final" decision is made, Behrouz Mohebbi, an Iranian lawmaker close to Khamenei's senior adviser Ali Larijani told Arman Melli on Monday that "The government will most certainly not lift the ban on WhatsApp and Instagram as these platforms are supervised by the enemies of the Islamic Republic."