Social media platforms are blocked in Iran. Candidates in this week’s presidential election are embracing them anyway

Social media platforms are blocked in Iran. Candidates in this week’s presidential election are embracing them anyway

After Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash on May 20, the Iranian government had to schedule an early election to choose a new president.

The regime has approved six presidential candidates to run in the election on June 28. The pool includes four hardliners, one centrist and one reformist.

The main competition is expected to be between two hardliners and the reformist candidate. One of the hardliners is Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013. He is likely to receive support among ideologically similar segments of society.

The other hardliner, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the current speaker of parliament, is also hoping to secure the votes of pro-regime supporters. There is some speculation that one of these candidates may withdraw in favour of the other.

The sole reformist candidate, Masoud Pezeshkian, currently an MP, is seeking to revive the social capital of the so-called reformist camp. Under former President Hassan Rouhani administration’s from 2013 to 2021, reformists failed to fulfil their promises and gradually aligned themselves with the centre of power, where they remain.

All of the candidates, including Pezeshkian, have emphasised their commitment to adhering to the policies set forth by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As a result, the question of who will win has lost any real significance.

Saeed Jalili during another presidential debate this week.
Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/IRIB/AP

The more pressing issue will be the voter turnout. Recent parliamentary and presidential elections have seen less than 50% voter turnout, the lowest it’s ever been since the 1979 revolution. Iran’s leaders have also faced multiple nationwide protests in recent years.

Thus, the clerical establishment’s primary objective is to encourage public participation in this week’s election and restore its legitimacy.

This might be a tall order. According to a survey conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, 73% of participants reported not watching the first televised presidential debate on June 18. The agency has also noted that only 18.5% of respondents said they are seriously following election news.

This lack of engagement has created a strange situation in recent weeks. To boost voter turnout, the Iranian leadership and its approved candidates are using social media to try to engage with Iranians – despite the fact all major Western social media platforms have been blocked in the country.

So, how is this working?

The Iranian government has blocked Western platforms like X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram because of the potential they could be used during protests to fuel greater unrest.

However, around 80% of people use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to get around the restrictions.

Many Iranian officials themselves are also active on these restricted platforms. For instance, Hossein Dalirian, spokesman for Iran’s National Cyberspace Center, a body at the core of internet censorship in Iran, tweeted recently:

I suggest that all six candidates use this [cyber] space to present their plans.

Meanwhile, the official news agency, IRNA, has advocated for increased online activity, emphasising the fact there are “31 million active [Iranian] users” on Instagram. It also reported that “lethargy” has resulted in insufficient engagement with election news on social media, in particular Instagram.

What are the candidates saying?

Amid the growing government concerns over electoral engagement, some of the candidates have significantly boosted their presence on the blocked platforms to try to reach everyday Iranians. The table below shows how many posts the six candidates have put on X from June 10–23:

Most of these candidates have previously supported internet censorship, highlighting the paradox in their campaign strategies. For instance, in February, Jalili advocated for more stringent internet restrictions, warning that without bold action, “the country will face damage”.

Yet, the campaigns are now strategically using social media to highlight issues likely to resonate with younger voters.

For instance, all of them have voiced their opposition to the morality police’s enforcement of women wearing the hijab in public. They have also positioned themselves, hypocritically, as champions of internet freedom.

Jalili, for example, has tweeted his “admiration for active users of cyberspace” and has described online platforms as a “valuable opportunity that should not be left behind”.

The reformist candidate, Pezeshkian, has promised to “free the internet” and “stand against censorship”, while being mindful to toe the line and maintain allegiance to the Supreme Leader.

He has also condemned the use of “violence” against women without a hijab.

Similarly, Ghalibaf has been so bold as to state internet censorship is unjustifiable given that “VPN usage has reached 67%”. (It was not clear where his statistic came from.)

Is this online engagement working?

These statements reveal a calculated effort to appeal to the youth and the broader public’s growing demand for social and political change. Beyond the official accounts of the candidates, an extensive network of supporters are also promoting their narratives on X, Instagram and Telegram.

However, despite these efforts, public engagement has reportedly remained low. A Tehran-based data analytics company reported on June 23 that, less than a week before the election, online public engagement is “very far” from creating a vibrant electoral atmosphere.

This persistently low engagement suggests voter turnout will remain a significant challenge for the clerical establishment. Under these conditions, a reported high voter turnout on Friday would either be an astonishing development or a fabricated claim.

The post “Social media platforms are blocked in Iran. Candidates in this week’s presidential election are embracing them anyway” by Amin Naeni, PhD candidate in digital technologies in Iran, Deakin University was published on 06/26/2024 by