Iranian regime faces dilemma: ‘You can’t just block social media’
Protests have been raging in Iran for two months since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. The role of social media in the protests against the Iranian regime should not be underestimated, says Senior Assistant Professor and Iranian Babak RezaeeDaryakenari.
The rallying cry Women, Life, Freedom is now sounding way beyond Iran, in the Netherlands, for instance. Reason enough for RezaeeDaryakenari as an Iranian, but above all as a researcher, to join a roundtable on the situation in the country. This public meeting was held by the Leiden University Centre for International Relations (LUCIR) at Wijnhaven in The Hague.
Protests flaring up
‘We obviously spoke about the situation in Iran because although it may seem as though the protests have stopped, that certainly isn’t the case. The protests are going in a kind of waves and look to be flaring up again,’ says RezaeeDaryakenari. He thinks there is more support this time for the protests than for previous protest movements in Iran.
‘The security forces cracked down hard on the universities a couple of times at the start of the protests’
‘In 1999 there were the student protests, in 2009 it was the Iranian middle class and in 2018 and 2019 it was mainly the lower socioeconomic class that was demonstrating. The protests now are supported by all layers of society.’ Although Iranian students have joined in the protests, it is relatively quiet at universities, such as the Sharif University in Teheran. ‘The security forces cracked down hard on the universities a couple of times at the start of the protests and the students have since moved their protests to the streets,’ says RezaeeDaryakenari.
As with the 2018 and 2019 protests, social media is important in organising demonstrations. But the Iranian regime itself is now using the platforms with the aid of fake accounts.
‘Demonstrators are sometimes lured to a place where the security forces are lying in wait,’ says RezaeeDaryakenari. But the opposite is also true: they will say there won’t be a protest at the agreed place after all and that everyone should stay at home. And the regime tries to deter demonstrators by sharing explicit images of brutal violence. Demonstrators now appear to be able to see through the fake accounts. ‘It’s one of the reasons why the regime is not managing to demobilise the movement.’
‘There are millions of Iranians who generate something of an income through Instagram and other social media’
Shutting down the social media platforms is no option for the regime, says RezaeeDaryakenari. ‘There are millions of Iranians who generate something of an income through Instagram and other social media. For instance, by advertising their shops or the products that they sell. We are talking about one million direct jobs and eight million indirect ones. This puts the Iranian regime in a bind because restricting the internet will only make protests grow.’ Circumventing internet blocks has also become easier as VPN (Virtual Private Network) connections have become better. These enable Iranians to go online anonymously.
RezaeeDaryakenari believes the cracks in the closed Iranian regime are becoming more visible. ‘There is increasing hesitation in the security forces and in the Iranian economic and security elites. The Iranian state is no longer as united as it was immediately after the Islamic Revolution. And the country has been suffering for years from European, American and Canadian sanctions, which are also affecting the security forces.’ In previous years protests were crushed without mercy and people stayed home afterwards but that does not seem to be working now.
Roundtable at Wijnhaven
RezaeeDaryakenari is pleased to see so much interest in the Iranian protest movement. More than 100 students, researchers and others came to the roundtable at Wijnhaven
‘I always felt I had to explain myself, that as an Iranian I don’t represent the Islamic Republic’
‘At the end of the evening, a European student from an Iranian background came up to me. He started talking in broken Farsi so I replied in English. But he asked me to please speak Farsi. He wanted to practise his language because the protests had made him feel more connected to the country,’ says RezaeeDaryakenari, who also puts his own feelings into words. ‘I always felt I had to explain myself, that as an Iranian I don’t represent the Islamic Republic. These protests make me proud of my homeland.’
Babak RezaeeDaryakenari is Senior Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Political Science. He was born in Iran and studied at Sharif University of Technology in Teheran. He received his doctorate from Arizona State University in the United States and has worked at Leiden University since 2019. He is currently researching how the internet influences the dynamic between states and dissidents.
Text: Tim Senden