In a country where thousands of websites are blocked on government order, Instagram is an anomaly.

The photo-sharing app, freely available where the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are banned, is used by at least 24 million young Iranians for entertainment, news and shopping, with thousands of local sellers trading on the platform.

In the last couple years, it has come under increasing government scrutiny, mostly for its perceived threat to traditional Iranian values. Police have made several publicized arrests of people for posted photos or videos that were deemed immoral, while officials have announced at various times that an Instagram block is incoming, The platform was even banned for two weeks at the end of 2017, during the largest anti-government protests in the country for nearly a decade.

Yet today, Instagram remains open, while encrypted messaging platform Telegram, used by some 40 million Iranians, has since been banned for its central role in organizing those protests.

A more political Instagram

Instagram lacks certain features that would lend it to mass mobilization, such as the ability to send group messages, while posts tend to be less politically focused than on Twitter and Telegram. And with many Iranians running small businesses over Instagram, the platform is a hub of Iran’s burgeoning digital economy rather than a gathering space for fomenting dissent, as authorities saw Telegram to be. 

But since Telegram was blocked in April 2018, the photos and videos shared on Instagram have veered towards politics and current affairs. Though news tends to originate on Twitter before being shared on Telegram or Instagram, many Iranians count Instagram as one of their news sources.

“Instagram is less of a political platform and more of a social and cultural one, but this is changing, mainly because of the Telegram block,” says Fereidoon Bashar, director at ASL19, a Toronto-based organization that distributes digital tools to help Iranians circumvent censorship.

Fardin Rahmani* is a photographer who uses the platform to promote his business. The 35-year-old Instagrammer makes money from branded posts and advertisements with Iranian companies, and says that should Instagram be banned, he would simply use a VPN to get around the block, much as he already does with Twitter and Telegram.

“Telegram is banned, but we use it more than anything,” he says. “Even our parents’ generation, sixty or seventy years old, have VPNs. They’re losing trust in [state media] and prefer to get the news from Telegram, maybe Instagram.”

Rahmani says that he sometimes uses the Instagram Live feature to broadcast clips in support of arrested journalists because these videos are inaccessible once they are no longer live, leaving no digital trail. “I know I don’t want to go to jail, so I don’t talk about sensitive points and red lines. I use the narrow passes that we can use to defend each other,” he says.

Although many people use VPNs to circumvent the block and access Telegram, the minor drop in users since its block – and the ongoing hurdle of finding a VPN that has not been blocked by the internet filtering system – has pushed businesses, celebrities and state officials towards Instagram in order to maintain their access to millions of Iranians.

Many media organizations with large followings on Telegram, including BBC Persian and local political outlet Amad News, now use Instagram to broadcast short videos and live news that is shared and discussed on the platform.

“Even our parents’ generation have VPNs. They prefer to get the news from Telegram and Instagram.” – Fardin Rahmani

Iran’s activists have also taken to Instagram to publicize their struggles.

Earlier this year, jailed labor activist Esmail Bakhshi posted an image of a letter that described how he had been tortured during his incarceration. The post attracted support from tens of thousands of Iranians online, pushing President Hassan Rouhani to call for an investigation – although this fell to the wayside after the intelligence minister denied any torture had taken place.

Lawmakers leverage Instagram

Politicians, especially reformists who are calling for a less restricted internet, are increasingly leveraging the power of Instagram to connect with Iranian citizens.

During the last presidential elections in May 2017, Instagram, along with Telegram, was already an integral tool for candidates to reach voters. Both the incumbent reformist president Rouhani and his opponent, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, live-streamed their campaign rallies on Instagram and posted constant updates to Telegram. This was especially beneficial for Rouhani because conservative-run state television cut part of his campaign video before it aired – and on social media, it was watched in its entirety by millions.

Yet Instagram isn’t only a stomping ground for lawmakers favoring a more open internet, nor is banned media off-limits to state officials from both factions. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, who has ordered many restrictions on Iranian internet, has 2.6 million followers on Instagram, along with Twitter accounts in English, Persian, Arabic and Spanish. The moderate-leaning Minister of ICT Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi is one of the many ministers active on Twitter as well as Instagram, where he posts family photos, selfies and content related to his work with telecommunications.

Instagram photo of Iran's president and Supreme Leader

In 2017, Rouhani posted an image of him and Ayatollah Khamenei a quarter-century earlier, with the caption “An intimate meeting with the Supreme Leader of the Revolution”

“Lawmakers are not subject to the same laws as everyday Iranians,” says Heidi Ghavidel-Syooki, an analyst with the US-based Middle East think tank DoubleThink, and a journalist who had to leave Iran. “In a way, this is to show spectators that the situation isn’t as bad as they think, if the government is on social media.”

Hardliners have also consorted with Instagram influencers to help spread their message. During his run for the presidency, Raisi, who has six hundred thousand Instagram followers, received endorsement from Iranian rapper Amir Tataloo in an attempt to court young voters who were more swayed by Rouhani’s reformist campaign promises.

Tataloo, who was arrested in 2016 for “encouraging corruption and prostitution”, had also previously aligned himself with hardliners in a 2015 music video where he rapped that “having an armed Persian Gulf is our absolute right”. He has declared his support for the Supreme Leader on Instagram numerous times.

“The conservatives and hardliners have realized the potential of Instagram and other social media to reach mass audiences,” says Bashar. “While trying to catch up, they are also trying to block these platforms to take the advantage away from reformist and moderate politicians who have been active on social media for much longer.”

Instagram profile page of Iranian rapper Tataloo

The underground rapper Tataloo has since deleted most of his past Instagram posts, including those expressing support for the Supreme Leader

With the approach of the 2020 parliamentary elections, the first since Telegram was blocked, Instagram is likely to be eyed up by the hardliners who dominate the Supreme Council on Cyberspace (SCC), one of the committees that regulate Iranian internet.

The platform is as popular among local councillors and MPs as Iranian citizens, and many politicians have been using their Instagram pages to campaign for 2020. Some commentators believe that as the last open channel where millions of voters can freely gather, Instagram could play a key role in these elections.

Rahmani agrees with that. “The government expects and wants social activity around the elections, people talking about candidates and inviting other people to vote,” he says.

The question is whether this will instigate a block on the platform, censoring or restricting information, or whether it will encourage lawmakers to keep it open to drum up support.

A story like Telegram’s

Though announcements that Instagram will be blocked have so far gone unfulfilled, according to Bashar, conversations about banning the platform are ongoing amongst Iranian lawmakers. “To understand where Instagram really is, you have to look at it in the context of Telegram and how that got blocked,” he says.

Since 2014, the hardline faction of the Supreme Leader, the judiciary, the Qom Theological Seminary and the police had been calling on the Rouhani government to restrict access to Telegram, citing the prevalence of immoral or politically dissenting content. These calls were renewed after the 2016 parliamentary elections, during which Telegram was a key political tool for the wins of more moderate, liberal candidates. At the time, Telegram users numbered about 25 million, and the reformist administration argued that there was no domestic alternative that could support that many users.

As the last open channel where millions of voters can freely gather, Instagram could play a key role in the 2020 elections.

No consensus was reached, but in the months before the May 2017 presidential elections, Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guards arrested 12 administrators of channels supporting the reformist regime. Previously, this wing of Iran’s armed forces had made arrests for the posting of immoral or obscene content, but this occasion marked the first crackdowns based overtly on political affiliation.

After the protests at the end of 2017, Telegram was blocked permanently for its central role in mobilizing tens of thousands of protestors – not via the internet regulation committees, but through a judicial order. The company had repeatedly refused to host any of its traffic in Iran.

“The same sort of story is unfolding with Instagram,” says Bashar. “There is infighting among the internet committees, with hardliners wanting it blocked for social, cultural and political reasons, and the government administration is holding them back through the same argument they made for Telegram – that there is so far a lack of a suitable domestic alternative.”

Widespread VPNs

If Instagram is filtered – as Bashar believes it will be at some point – it’s almost certain that the majority of Iranian users will make their way back on, much as they have done with Telegram.

Maryam is the 29-year-old admin of a Telegram news channel with 1.7 million followers, most of whom she believes support conservative policies. The news she curates on the Akhbar Montakhab channel covers Iran events and world events relevant to Iranians. During the first Telegram ban in January 2018, she says half her channel’s views disappeared but following the second, permanent block that April, her user base recovered, accessing their accounts via VPNs and the locally developed proxy apps Telegram Talaeii and Hotgram.

“At first maybe a few people stopped using Telegram to support the government, but after they realized [there was no consequence], they started using it again,” she says. “They want to stay and argue for their opinions against other people and their opinions. Nobody wanted to lose their forum.”

And, she adds, “Telegram is also a good forum for the government’s people.”

Three weeks after the ban was first imposed, ICT Minister Jahromi even posted a chart to his Instagram profile indicating how the number of Telegram users had begun rising to pre-ban levels, marking the unusual event of an Iranian minister implying the ineffectiveness of state policy.

“Telegram functioned – and still does – as an app that connects family members, lets people talk about politics and ensures they can send messages private from telecom providers that are mostly owned and operated by government entities,” says Ghavidel-Syooki. Its prevalence is such that when the government attempted to block it, people had far more incentive to find a way back on, via circumvention tools that have reopened Iranian internet even as hardliners seek to clamp down further.

“I wouldn’t bet against Instagram being blocked. If it is, I expect that Iranians would turn to VPNs to continue accessing their pages,” Bashar says.

Iranian woman checking messages

Iran’s tech-savvy population are likely to find a way to Instagram even if it is blocked by the country’s strict internet filters Credit: Adam Jones, In Iran: Text and Photos

Sophisticated censorship

But while blocking Instagram might not prevent access to the platform, the rise of domestically developed VPN apps – and state support for people to use these alternatives – may equally compromise Iranian internet access.

One of the official reasons to enact an Instagram ban has been because the US-based company refused to host its data in Iran. Local apps, on the other hand, must have their data stored locally, where it is subject to government control.

Telegram Taleii and Hotgram, for instance, not only routed encrypted data from the Telegram platform through servers accessible by Iranian authorities, but also censored content according to the country’s internet filtering standards. Between them, these apps had 30 million users in Iran as of July 2018.

“The VPN market in Iran is a very lucrative business and the fear with local apps is that intelligence services or military forces are somehow involved,” says Bashar.

VPN apps are targeted by censors and regularly stop working, forcing people to find new ones and creating a very real app fatigue that could shunt them towards government-friendly VPNs that are allowed to function unimpeded.

Heavy subsidies to internet providers have also lowered the cost of data when accessing local sites so that it is a fraction of the cost of accessing foreign platforms, again pushing users towards sites that can be easily monitored by authorities.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at a press conference in 2017

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at a press conference in 2017 Credit: Hamed Malekpour, Tasnim News

Such tactics have led analysts to suggest that as state influence over Iranian cyberspace increases, the focus is moving away from blunt-force blocks and towards soft-power policies around directing the flow of information and shaping the online narratives people are exposed to.

Ghavidel-Syooki believes that the Rouhani government promotes its internet policies as progressive in order to push through other initiatives that end up restricting Iranians’ access.

“They labor to give the impression that there is some question over how open the internet should be, because they can get away with a lot this way [with the people],” says Ghavidel-Syooki

While the administration has won two elections based on increasing access to the internet, and it publicly denounces censorship of social media, it has also approved major financial incentives for app developers to create local versions of popular social media. For example, local developers were encouraged to create Telegram rivals, with about $260,000 for every one million users the platform won, as long as the app complied with the government’s anti-privacy regulations for messaging services.

Such apps, like Soroush, which is owned by the state broadcaster and promoted by both the Supreme Leader and reformist Jahromi, have not been well met by tech-savvy Iranians. “No way I would use it,” says Maryam. “In my opinion, Soroush and Telegram are not comparable on a technical standard, and even if they were, can you trust it? I don’t think so.”

A government official said that a domestic alternative to Instagram had also been completed, although local photo-sharing apps have in the past been met with similarly lukewarm reception.

The rise of domestically developed VPN apps may equally compromise Iranian internet access.

Instagram’s future

With the development of the National Information Network, an Iranian internet where critical sites such as banking are hosted on local servers, the government may soon have the carte blanche it needs to block foreign sites at will while minimizing the social and economic cost of internet disruption.

The creation of incentive structures such as cheaper local data are part of the push to keep people on local internet, potentially allowing the state to block parts of the internet without businesses and economic operations shutting down.

But even as officials announce that the country’s own internet is “80% complete”, the ICT ministry is publicizing its high-tech developments. “People in Tehran are always online, and the government is talking about bringing in 5G internet – but at the same time, they’re talking about closing the internet off from the rest of the world,” says Ghavidel-Syooki. “Iran is a country of contradictions. Who knows what will happen with Instagram?”

With throttled internet speeds and the majority of the world’s most popular sites blocked, everyday Iranians are already operating at their edge.

“I’ve been using the internet for 20 years and this is the worst situation we’ve had,” says Rahmani. “There is always some tension about whether Instagram will be filtered, but the government is probably wise enough not to get rid of all social media.”

*Not his real name