TEHRAN—Authoritarian rulers have clamped down on dissidents trying to organize online in recent years, with some attempting to emulate the firewall that insulates China’s homegrown web from the world outside.
Iran has taken a different approach. Knowing its filters aren’t enough to keep Iranians off global social-media platforms, it floods them with propaganda, aiming to turn them to its advantage.
The latest is Clubhouse. Activists complain that Iranian authorities are co-opting the app to create a facade of democracy ahead of presidential elections in June to boost voter turnout, which the state has often used as a badge of legitimacy.
In recent weeks, Iranians have gravitated to Clubhouse to discuss everything from human-rights abuses in the Islamic Republic to cultural issues and boycotting the elections. Launched last year, the audio-based app offers users a way to gather in virtual “rooms” where anyone can join townhall-style debates.
It would seem to be the kind of platform that would unsettle many authoritarian leaders. But while other Middle Eastern governments moved to block it, Iran leaned in.
One recent evening, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif fielded questions until 1 a.m., drawing a maximum capacity of 8,000 listeners. Iran’s nuclear chief, its central bank governor and even military commanders have taken part in their own debates, too.
At first, the discussions seemed unusually frank by Iranian standards.
“In other social networks which are based on writing, people can edit what they say,” said Farid Naderi, a 33-year-old civil engineer in Tehran who said he spends three to four hours a day on Clubhouse. “But in Clubhouse, individuals speak spontaneously,” he said. “The truth is naked and transparent in Clubhouse.”
However, participants soon found familiar red lines even on Clubhouse.
When Omid Memarian, a U.S.-based Iranian journalist, challenged a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander and presidential candidate, Rostam Qasemi, about the killing of hundreds of street protesters in 2019, Mr. Memarian was cut off by the moderators in Tehran who had organized the discussion.
“They said I had radical ideas, and that I shouldn’t be allowed to ask these questions,” Mr. Memarian said.
Mr. Zarif’s townhall wasn’t as free as it initially appeared, either. The organizers later told Clubhouse users that the foreign minister had said he wouldn’t accept questions from foreign-based Persian-language media outlets, which often criticize Iran’s leadership.
Negin Shiraghaei, a former presenter with the British Broadcasting Corp. who organizes activists on Clubhouse, said Iranian authorities seek to uphold the same rules on Clubhouse as they do in the Islamic Republic.
“They are creating an image,” she said. “In Iran, at meetings with the Supreme Leader, some people are allowed to ask ‘critical questions’ to make it seem like there is dialogue.”
The organizer of the debate with Mr. Zarif, Tehran-based journalist Farid Modarresi, said he had to follow the rules of the Iranian state, even online.
“If you work in a country, you respect its rules. I don’t disregard their criticism and don’t reject what they say in an absolute way,” Mr. Modarresi said about his critics abroad. “But those outside Iran expect too much from us.”
Clubhouse didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Iran’s approach to Clubhouse follows a tested-and-tried playbook, said Mahsa Alimardani, who has researched Iran’s approach to social media at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet. She said Tehran responded to the rise of the Telegram messaging app by first blocking it and then swamping it with pro-Islamic Republic messaging. Some of the most followed Iranian accounts on Telegram are run by the Revolutionary Guards, the premier wing of Iran’s military, or hard-line state media outlets, fulminating on topics such as the U.S.’s involvement in the Middle East or the supposed threat from Israel.
“As Telegram evolved, the Islamic Republic didn’t have control over the app, but it did a lot to control the information space,” said Ms. Alimardani.
When one of the most prominent women’s-rights activists living in Iran, Faezeh Rafsanjani, filled a Clubhouse room to capacity within minutes, she clashed with the moderator who kept interrupting her. Ms. Rafsanjani, the daughter of a former president, said she no longer believed in a religious government and encouraged Iranians to boycott the coming elections. The moderator said he didn’t want to get arrested for allowing her to speak.
Many Iranian users have recently been unable to access the app after some of the country’s cellphone operators blocked it. But pro-establishment figures daily use the platform to promote Iran’s Islamic systemm including conservative presidential candidates.
Mohammad Mousazadeh, a popular qari, or a skilled reciter of the Quran, who is affiliated with a hard-line political faction, has racked up 7,600 followers. Iran’s minister of information and communications technology, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, often pops up on the platform to voice his opinion on a given topic, sometimes while stuck in traffic in Tehran.
The Iranian parliament this week added over $70 million to a budget proposed by the government including allocations for what was described as the state broadcaster’s “cyber operatives.”
Iran’s social-media tactics represent a novel method of policing the internet on the cheap.
Other countries try to emulate China’s firewall through blunt force. In Vietnam, a 10,000-strong cyber unit called Force 47 patrols the web, and a 2018 law grants authorities enhanced authority to inspect computer systems. Dissidents arrested and charged with the crime of spreading propaganda against the state, as the Vietnamese authorities call it, can expect to be sentenced to years in prison.
Cambodia in February passed rules requiring all internet traffic in the country to route through a regulatory body that monitors online activity before it reaches users. Myanmar’s leaders have periodically cut mobile internet access during protests against this year’s coup, but have also followed Iran’s lead by flooding Facebook with disinformation. U.S.-based think tank Freedom House estimates some 700 military personnel are involved in the operation.
Iran also blocks the internet during unrest, and imposed a near-blackout during protests in late 2019. It has developed its own walled-off internet, with limited success, and recently signed an economic pact with China that includes the exchange of cybersecurity technology.
“It is very important for us to be able to establish control over our cyberspace with the help of China,” lawmaker Mahmoud Nabavian told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency after the agreement was signed.
Virtual private networks and proxies to circumvent state filtering in Iran are illegal but widely available and the big social-media sites are widely used. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s office uses Twitter.
Despite the risks and limitations, free-speech advocates maintain there still are upsides to Clubhouse.
“Not being able to communicate and speak about our problems has been always a worry,” said Mr. Naderi in Tehran. “Now we can have a dialogue.”
There is also some satisfaction in being able to confront Iran’s rulers, at least temporarily.
“I went to jail for my writings in Iran,” said Mr. Memarian, the journalist who asked about the killings of protesters. “It felt good to tell a senior member of the Revolutionary Guard that he was responsible for repression.”
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Iran Floods Clubhouse to Drown Out Debate – The Wall Street Journal