Iran’s Cyberwar: The Changing Role of Technology in Protest

By Marnie Duke

CYBERSPACE has emerged as a battleground between persecutors and protestors – and there’s no better example than the recent uprising in Iran.

Tech users are managing to outsmart their governments.

In 2019, Iran’s government cut off the country’s internet access during nationwide protests against rising fuel prices. Any media platforms that remained in use were controlled and monitored by authorities.

The enforcement of this media blackout concealed them from the watching eyes of international audiences. Hundreds of protestors were reportedly attacked and killed, but the violence went largely undocumented, unshared and unpunished.

In September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality police for supposedly wearing her hijab incorrectly and later died in custody. News of her death went viral online, sending shock waves through cyberspace and sparking protests worldwide. In typical response to social unrest in the country, the government issued another internet shutdown.

But this time around, tech-users are waging war on authorities online.

In the past few years, social media has proved a powerful tool in driving social movements. By sharing visual information online, users have become organisers, advocates and educators. However, long-established censorship in Iran means that protestors cannot visibly criticise authorities online without fear of persecution.

Alongside internet blackouts, the government has controlled the press and blocked users’ access to websites and applications since the country first connected to the internet nearly thirty years ago. This has only been worsened by a decade of US sanctions that have limited the range of services that Iranians can access online.

Since Amini’s murder, social media users have been grouping to form an invisible media network. As few independent journalists can operate freely in Iran, protestors have become substitute journalists, reporters and informants, secretly broadcasting to the global community about the reality on the ground.

Of course, the dangers of posting online remain very real, as authorities monitor activity. Protestors in Iran therefore have been reaching out to activists overseas who are both sharing the content online and working to protect those documenting it on the ground. By contacting social platforms like Twitter, Whatsapp and Instagram, Iran’s tech-savvy diaspora can request the shutdown of arrested individuals’ accounts, before the Islamic Republic’s security services scour their phones for information. By playing Iranian authorities at their own game of reducing access to online information, they have established cyberspace as a battleground between persecutors and protestors.

In response to growing international concern, the US has issued a licence to tech-companies, allowing them to provide services to Iranians that will help to evade the government’s internet restrictions and document what is happening online to the global community. Long standing US sanctions have simultaneously limited online access and played into Iranian government propaganda regarding the country’s vulnerability to foreign forces – a fabricated narrative that allows them to centralise the control of internet services. This decision symbolises a shift towards a more evenly distributed system in which Iranians can access the online world that their leaders have hidden from them.

Last week, hackers also interrupted a live, state-run broadcast. News cut to an image of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei surrounded by flames, with a target on his head. Images of four of the women murdered in recent protests were displayed alongside the chant ‘Women, life, freedom.’

Online displays of dissent are virtually unheard of in the country, where Khamenei wields total control. However, it appears that with the global community on their side, Iranian activists are gaining the tools and endorsement to take on the authoritarian regime.

We cannot know what impact the current protests will have. In the past, technology has proven to drive social movements, but can it overhaul systems, shift cultures and alter attitudes?

The very act of using social media in Iran has become rebellious. By engaging with it, protestors are already subverting the order of the Islamic Republic. Women in Iran are saying no to being controlled – both in the real world and to being censored online.

The digital iron veil has been uncovered; the world is watching, and it’s proving to be the most powerful weapon of all.

Featured Image: Taymaz Valley @Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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