Elon Musk has said that X (formerly Twitter) might start charging its users “a small fee” and insisting that the aim is to “combat vast armies of bots."
It’s hard to tell if that’s the real intention – or if it’s just about money. It’s also hard to tell how effective it would be in keeping out the bots.
One thing is almost certain, however: that any ‘monthly payment’, no matter how small, would keep out thousands of users living in Iran.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Islamic Republic since its inception, Iran is completely isolated from the global financial system. There’s no Visa or Mastercard in Iran. Those inside can’t even use PayPal, due to the US sanctions regime.
Some may find ways to go around this, of course, especially those with friends or family abroad who are willing to pay on their behalf. But they would be a tiny minority. The rest would have to abandon the platform.
And no one would be happier than the ayatollahs.
Elon Musk is, of course, aware of the information isolation people in Iran face. At the same meeting where he floated the idea of charging X users, he revealed that he had received a letter from Tehran, complaining about the activation of the satellite internet service Starlink over the country.
“We got permission from the State Department to turn on Starlink over Iran,” he said in a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “and a few people are using it… we got an upset letter from the government of Iran”.
For many years now, the anachronistic regime in Iran has been trying to cut off Iranians from thousands of websites and social media –generally, because it doesn’t like spaces it can’t control, even virtual ones, but more specifically, because more elite Iranians use X for political expression and organization perhaps more than any other platform.
Reliable figures on users (or usage) are hard to come by. But the most popular accounts on X –those which post solely in Persian– have around 2 million followers.
Instagram has a lot more active users inside Iran, perhaps ten times that of X, if the biggest accounts are an indication. Instagram wasn’t blocked until the 2022 protests last September. But it’s a different universe entirely. Millions use it to advertise, sell and buy (partly because it was the only non-blocked platform for a long time).
On X, however, politics seems to be a much more prominent topic. It’s the platform of choice for Iranian journalists, activists and those who’re often called ‘opinion-makers, for want of a better word. Even the Islamic Republic insiders have active accounts on X –from the Supreme Leader and the President down to the state-affiliated journalists who support their politics of restriction and suffocation.
They will all be over the moon to see X go behind a paywall.
Of course, Musk and X could always come up with ‘smart’ solutions: excepting those living under dictatorships, for instance, for whom the platform offers a lifeline. But it won’t be easy, since ordinary Iranians inside Iran have to use circumvention tools to access X, making it harder to determine their real location.
It’s not clear when the plan to charge X users takes effect. And it’s not clear how much people should pay to access the platform.
X does have a subscription service already, charging for features like editing posts and ranking higher in conversations and search –and of course the blue tick. That service starts at $8 a month.
The new subscription is likely to be cheaper. Musk says a “lower tier” pricing is “the only defense against vast armies of bots." Time will tell if that’s the case where Elon Musk lives. In Iran, though, the winners and losers of his plan are clear from now.