Iran’s last unblocked social media: Instagram and all its discontents

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June 6, 2022 | 16:00 – 17:00 UTC

Increasingly, Instagram has become the most popular social media in Iran. It’s the last remaining unblocked foreign social media. Previously, Telegram was the main communication tool and was central during protests. Since Telegram’s censorship in May 2018, Instagram has replaced it as the main platform for social media communication in Iran, with 53.1% of users in Iran using it.

But there’s a massive problem! A majority of Iranian users either are having content constantly removed or know at least one person who is being censored in the Persian language. Whether this is intentionally or unintentionally occurring, many Iranians often don’t know. The easiest explanations have been conspiracy theories that the platform has been “infiltrated” by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), or the IRI deploys cyber armies to mass report content they don’t like. The type of content we have seen removed include hashtags for human rights campaigns becoming shadow banned; comedians posting satire making fun of Iranian officials on Meta’s Dangerous Individuals and Organisations list (DIO) like the Revolutionary Guards list or poking fun at COVID misinfo peddled by the clerical elite; activist organisations posting protest footage that include chants of “death to the dictator/death to Khamenei” removed for inciting violence; or Persian language news organisations simply discussing political organisations or issues inside of Iran that intersect with the DIO list. Instagram suffers from a deficit in trust, transparency, and policies that are either not contextualised to Iran or cannot be implemented properly at scale in the Persian language. Despite acknowledgements by the company, the case loads remain high, and many Iranians are abandoning the platform or digging deep into conspiracy theories. Revelations by the BBC that IRI officials have tried to bribe Persian language moderators for Meta at a centre in Essen alongside allegations that there is not enough oversight over the moderators to neutralise their biases has further fueled distrust over the platform.

This RightsCon session hopes to bring the voices of the Iranian community to the fore. Hosted by ARTICLE19’s senior researcher Mahsa Alimardani, working on issues of content moderation across in Iran and the Middle East region, she speaks to a wealth of experts including well known Iranian-British journalist and BBC broadcaster Rana Rahimpour who has worked with and on various communities facing issues of censorship on Instagram; one of Iran and the Iranian diaspora’s most popular talk-show hosts and comedians, Sina Valliollah with over 7 million Instagram followers; alongside Meta’s Policy Manager Muhammad Abushaqra; and Meta Oversight Board member Julie Owono, with a wealth of expertise on adjudicating cases for Meta. Simultaneously subtitled in Persian, we hope this session can answer questions for the Persian language community, especially inside Iran, and help lead to systemic changes to improve the situation of freedom of expression for Iranians on the last remaining free social media in Iran.