By Abbas Milani
A trench war, fought in our labyrinthine digital world, has been raging in the Islamic Republic of Iran for more than two decades. On one side is a youthful internet-savvy society—adept at the gender-neutral, hierarchy-averse pluralism of platforms and networks—a society craving to join the 21st century. On the other side is a clerical despotic regime with a claim to divine legitimacy, a parallel male-dominated septuagenarian elite, enamored of gender-apartheid and of ideas more than a millennium old—a power structure that is retrograde, passé and stale, compared to the vibrancy of Iranian society at large.
Of Iran’s more than eighty million people, 56.4 million have a cellphone, and 57.4 percent have access to the internet. At least 14 million people (with some estimates going as high as 40) use Telegram, and another twelve to fourteen million subscribe to Instagram. While Facebook is banned, and Twitter filtered, millions of Iranians use them both, for everything from e-commerce and romance to politics and public relations. More ironically still, virtually all government officials, including Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and the most fervent advocate of the need to fight the evils of the digital age, feverishly use their Twitter and Facebook accounts to take their message to the public.
The regime, now acknowledged around the world as one of the most adept at hacking, has tried to use social media and the possibilities of the digital age to contain, co-opt, control, even suppress the opposition. In their eclectic and elected affinities with the digital age, while averse to its liberation possibilities, their goal is very close to what 19th century Utilitarianism called the “pan-optic vision”—the ability to monitor every node of a social organism from a unitary position. Orwell in his inimitable style called this same kind of vision Big Brother watching. What makes the achievement of this goal unlikely is that along with the efforts of the regime and its ideological and security apparatus, Iranians from all walks of life, especially Iran’s embryonic civil society, and the vast non-violent opposition to the regime, inside and outside the country, have also tried to use the same media to organize, and mobilize their activities and fight regime policies and propaganda. In a sense then, Iran is the smithy wherein the paradigmatic problem of our age is hammered out each day: Is social media a tool of utopian liberation or a means of Orwellian control? The verdict, at least in Iran, is yet to be determined.
In this trench war, as expected, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), as the main muscle of clerical despotism, plays the critical role. Through some of their myriad front companies, they control the majority share of corporations that own and operate virtually the entire digital infrastructure, as well as smart phone services in the country. They use that power to slow down access to the internet, deny services in times of crisis, and filter sites or platforms seen as most dangerous. They have purchased more than five hundred million dollars worth of sophisticated software that allows them to track and monitor every account and message in the country. Only a few platforms, like Telegram, are still deemed to be beyond their reach. More than once the regime has toyed with the idea of emulating China and establishing a “safe” national internet.
Where software interdiction and overtly threatening gestures of censorship do not suffice, the regime and the IRGC use a vast army of paid minions and ideological myrmidons—or in their own parlance, cyberjihadists—to both control and shape the social media, and also to track and if needed arrest civil society activists. In this effort, they enter chat rooms, study what they call the “semiotics” of the digital age and try to reframe discussions in these rooms; they “follow” activists to not only offer arguments amenable to official dogma, but to help undermine narratives incongruent with prevailing regime ideology. The militia-cum-gang Basji, with its throng of a million men and women—some believers, others social opportunists who join (the way opportunists joined the Young Communist League) to enjoy the perks of membership—have been the foot soldiers of this cyberjihad.
So important is this Jihad in the regime’s often militaristic narrative of the world that more than once, their ideologues have referred to the internet as a tool or incarnation of the devil. Social media, they say, is the favorite weapon of America in its culture war with Islamic Iran –the most potent tool in what Khamenei calls America’s “Cultural NATO” against Iran. Fighting its “negative impact” is thus central to their strategy. Every city and region has its own commander of oversight for social media. In a lengthy article in one of their websites, they outline these “negative” aspects. The list includes such sins as the ability of social groups to learn from experiences of places like Yugoslavia about how to disrupt “national unity” and change consumption patterns, to intensify cultural cleavage, and to spread “fake news.” Foremost amongst the dangers of the digital age, according to the regime, is the effort to undermine people’s piety and religious identity and replace it with secular or hybrid identities. They even refer to a verse from the Quran as proof positive that social media is sinfully subversive. The verse says, “Those who love that indecency should be spread abroad concerning them that believe—there awaits them a painful chastisement in the present world and the world to come; and God knows and you know not.” (Quran, 24:19; Arbery translation.)
And yet, in spite of these regime efforts to filter and control, limit and structure the digital landscape, the people continue to use it cleverly to learn about the world, counter regime claims, and organize everything from raves to underground theater performances. A movement to have women publish an image of themselves without a veil online was surprisingly successful, while stealth satire, through recording and sharing small comically dubbed clips has been a favorite pastime. During the May 19 presidential elections, a remarkably vast social network was active, using every platform, working on “fact checking” candidate’s claims, getting out the vote, and even guiding voters to polling stations with shorter lines. The reformist candidate, Hassan Rouhani won; the conservative candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, generally assumed to be the conservative’s main candidate to succeed Khamenei as a Supreme Leader, lost badly; regime shenanigans in trying to “engineer” the final tallies to make the loss less embarrassing were duly exposed in the social media, and conservative threats at revenge were a constant digital reminder that a battle might have been won by the people, but the trench war rages on.