Iran’s regime likes to use Twitter even as it denies social media freedom to its own people

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, likes to use Twitter. 9,246 times in English so far since he joined in 2009. He mostly tweets in English. He only follows seven people. Actually, he mostly follows himself, his other Twitter accounts. In addition to his English account (512k followers), he has four others. The Spanish one (18k), the Arabic one (18k), the French one (22k), and the Farsi one (154k). His most active account is the English one, with the others have only around 1,000 tweets or less.

Since social media is blocked in Iran, several other regime accounts that tweet in Farsi linked to Khamenei don’t have many followers. Some of them have to do with weekly statements or propaganda about family life. These only get a few re-tweets.

There are other accounts as well closely linked to the history of the Islamic Republic. Someone maintains an account for Imam Khomeini with 45,000 followers. He also follows other accounts of himself, including one in Arabic that no one else seems to care about and another in Farsi.

Hassan Rouhani, the President, opened an account in 2013 and has 789,000 followers. He follows a second Persian account that has more than 600,000 followers. The vice-President on women and family affairs, Massoumeh Ebtekar (81k) also has a Twitter account and a second Farsi one.

We can map the regime’s network of official Twitter accounts, some of which are verified, others not, by looking at who the regime members follow. For instance, the Minister of Industry , Mine & trade of Islamic Republic Of Iran Shariatmadari Mohammad has an account. He follows 46 people.

Let’s look at some others. Khatami has an account, he only follows five people. An assistant professor. Politician Mohsen Mirdamadi tweets, so does Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Seyyed Abbas Salehi. The ICT Minister, another vice-president, several journalists, scholars, academics, ambassadors, other members of the government, parliament members, advisors to the current and former president and former high level members of the regime.

The most popular Iranian regime member on Twitter is Javad Zarif, who tweets in English and has 1 million followers. He has only made 400 tweets since 2009, although that might be because he has deleted many of them. He has certainly been more active in recent months, constantly berating and mocking the US administration. He has also boasted of his support for the IRGC and the regime’s policies.

The Iranian regime, whose members use social media, has been actively blocking Twitter since 2009. We searched for tweets whose users marked them as originating in Iran and didn’t find very many recent ones.

That the regime blocks social media for its own citizens but is so actively engaged in its use, including its official and state-supporting news agencies, shows the janus face of how platforms such as social media can be exploited by hypocritical authoritarian regimes. While they block free speech at home, they expect to have a platform abroad, exploiting freedoms to push their message, while denying their own citizens access. This hypocrisy has always been used by dictatorships against more free societies, but it is made more possibly by globalization.

In the 1920s or 1950s a dictatorship could not as easily spread its message while censoring messages at home. Today technology makes censorship at home easy and means that tweets or other social media use abroad can easily spread news in other countries.

Western countries could confront this hypocrisy by blocking these accounts and social media giants could ban these accounts the way they have other far-right and extremist voices. Also western tech giants could help Iranians get around the regime’s attempt to block their access to social media. Until that happens the regime leaders will have multiple accounts, while the average people are denied the ability to express themselves.

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