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Iran. Do social media platforms censor dissent? | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW

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Burned cars, street clashes, women burning their headscarves – Iran has been plagued by numerous anti-government protests since the death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Jina Amini in September. According to Iran Human Rights (IHR), by early October at least 150 people had died in connection with the protests.

On September 13, Mahsa Jina Amini was arrested in the Iranian capital, Tehran, by Iran’s so-called morality police, who apparently found fault with the way she wore her headscarf. She collapsed while in police custody in circumstances that remain unclear and was pronounced dead three days later in an Iranian hospital.

The demonstrations have not ceased since, despite the deployment of violence by the police to suppress them. Videos and images of police brutality have gone viral on social media, especially Instagram, which is widely used in Iran. The social platform was one of the last to be publicly available in Iran.

Mobile Internet interrupted for hours

This most likely explains why the Iranian regime blocked Instagram two weeks ago and severely restricted internet access overall. Mobile networks were widely disrupted, according to NetBlocks, a global internet monitoring organization based in London. “Iran’s big three mobile phone providers Irancell, Rightel, and MCI block internet traffic from the outside world from approximately 4 p.m. to midnight each day,” said Doug Madory of Kentik, a U.S.-based network observability platform. United States, to DW. As this is when most protests occur, this makes any live coverage difficult. Madory added, however, that Tuesday was “the first day in more than two weeks without mobile internet interruption”.

It has become increasingly difficult to access social media platforms and censorship circumvention tools such as Tor and Psiphon are on the rise, with millions of Iranian users using them. With their help, social media platforms can be accessed from personal computers. “Iranians have been facing internet censorship for almost 20 years, they are incredibly resourceful [in finding workarounds]including using a VPN,” said Marcus Michaelsen, a media and communications researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, allows users to surf the Internet anonymously. Google offers guidance on using this workaround on its Farsi service.

Anti-government protesters continue to take to the streets despite police violence

Instagram censored?

While the Iranian regime has restricted internet access, some say social media platforms themselves also engage in censorship. Opposition activists, groups and media say Instagram has removed some hashtags, videos and posts.

In a tweet, Iranian-born British actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi questioned why Facebook’s parent company Meta, which also runs Instagram, deleted so many posts related to the protests. Iranian-American journalist Saman Arbabi also accused Meta of recently removing a video showing protesters wishing for the Iranian leader’s death. On Twitter, he suggested the company had more respect for dictators than protest banners and slogans. He said a post that reportedly garnered 3.3 million views was also deleted. Manoto TV, a channel run by Iranian exiles, and the 1500 Tasvir documentary network also reported deleted posts.

“I noticed and experienced that too,” Michaelsen told DW. He and an Iranian colleague have pored over these developments, documenting posts that are taken down, while other similar content remains accessible. “It is difficult to explain why [Meta’s] guidelines are sometimes applied so drastically; I don’t have an explanation for that, but that’s how it is.”

Meta says no restrictions are in place

Asked to comment on the allegations, a spokesperson for Meta told DW: “We believe passionately in people’s right to online access, including in Iran. Iranians use apps like Instagram to stay close to their loved ones. , find information and shed light on important events – and we hope that the Iranian authorities will soon restore their access. In the meantime, our teams are monitoring the situation closely and focusing only on removing content that violates our rules, everything correcting any application errors as quickly as possible.

Meta told German public radio station BR that the restrictions imposed on Manoto TV were designed to combat spam and had been lifted. The company also said it restored some previously deleted messages. 1500 Tasvir has also been suspected of distributing spam, due to the high volume of protest-related content.

Starlink to the rescue?

What will happen now? SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said he wants to use Starlink satellites to bring internet to Iranians. Experts, however, say Iran lacks the antennae to make this a reality. A smartphone or router alone would not be enough to connect to Starlink.

A New York Times A guest essay co-authored by Mahsa Alimardani of the London-based international human rights organization ARTICLE 19 said improving the situation in Iran does not depend on using ‘untested satellite networks’ . Instead, the authors recommended that Meta “equip moderation and engineering teams with contextual nuance, creating direct lines of communication with activists to prevent impending harm, and providing communication tools that work”.

They argued that “deleted messages and blocked access” could become “a matter of life and death in these contexts”.

This article has been translated from German.

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