Facing a deluge of bot attacks and takedowns, Iranian feminists and political protesters say Instagram is silencing them
About a month ago, the UK-based Iranian women’s rights activist Samaneh Savadi published a post on her popular Instagram account about paternal postpartum depression. Shortly after, she noticed an uptick in follow requests.
At first, Savadi, who regularly publishes feminist and gender-related content on her account, was pleased. But then, she took a closer look at the recently added accounts. Many of them looked like bots: they had pseudonyms, newly created Instagram pages, no posts. Soon, the requests started overwhelming her page — up to 100 a minute.
“It was never-ending,” Savadi recalled. She briefly switched her page to private, but she didn’t want this deluge of suspicious new followers to keep her from speaking out. Soon, she made her page public again and was quickly inundated with harassing messages and new followers.
It wasn’t just Savadi’s page that saw strange activity. Other Iranian feminist-focused accounts soon started reporting the same pattern of events — a surge in follow requests and messages – beginning at roughly the same time in mid-May.
Bots appeared to target not just the most prominent feminist accounts, but also users with smaller followings who had engaged with Iranian feminists’ content by liking, posting, or sharing it. “It seemed they are trying to ruin our network,” said Shaghayegh Norouzi, an Iranian actress and feminist living abroad, who is a prominent figure in Iran’s #MeToo movement on social media. “That was so scary.”
Savadi and Norouzi — popular feminists who live abroad but have hundreds of thousands of followers on their Instagram accounts. Both say the vast majority of their users live in Iran. The app is Iran’s most popular social media platform, with an estimated 48 million annual users, and the only foreign social media network that is not banned by the government. Iranians commonly use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access other popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
The attacks come at a time of tremendous social unrest in Iran. Since late 2021, tens of thousands of people have joined protests in response to soaring food prices and the collapse of a building that killed nearly 40 people. Protest slogans have now turned political, calling for regime leaders to step down. The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has blamed the unrest on “enemies” attempting to sow discord in Iran “through the internet.” Mobile internet shutdowns have become commonplace, as have technical measures like throttling, that significantly slow down internet access.
The women targeted in these attacks see a clear link between the regime and what’s happening to them on Instagram.
“Who has the money for this attack?” asked Norouzi. “More than 30 pages, and we are still receiving fake followers, each hour more than 100 followers. Who is paying for this?” While it’s hard to know the breadth of government-affiliated cyber campaigns, a January 2022 report by the Atlantic Council notes that the Iranian government’s intelligence and security services have used “state-sponsored troll armies to silence dissidents” in recent years.
The deluge of messages and follows prompted nearly thirty Iranian feminists, including Savadi and Norouzi, to publish an open letter to Meta this month calling on the company to adopt stricter measures to protect activists’ online security and crack down on bot campaigns, and alleging that the cyber attacks “are often managed and sponsored by companies affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” Savadi and Norouzi say Meta has not yet responded to the letter.
And they are not the only ones pushing for Instagram to protect the speech of Iranians who are using the platform to speak out. As protests have ramped up, Iranians both inside and outside the country have seen a spike in the number of posts they’ve seen removed from Instagram, including messages related to protests and posts commemorating victims of Ukrainian flight 752 that was shot down by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in January 2020. The Persian diaspora media outlet Iran International reported that Instagram removed some of its videos of protesters being tear gassed by security forces.
Last week, ARTICLE19, Access Now, and the Center for Human Rights in Iran issued a set of recommendations for Meta, Instagram’s parent company, urging the company to “better understand the complexities of Persian-language content” and to uphold the speech rights of all Instagram users.
For both groups, while the actions of the Iranian regime lie at the root of their struggles, Meta’s failures to address grievances about what kinds of speech can and cannot stay on the platform effectively leave their voices in limbo.
In an insightful essay for Slate that delves into Instagram’s myriad Persian content moderation missteps, Iranian-Canadian scholar Mahsa Alimardani writes: “While misapplications of policies and a refusal of contextual analysis prevails, users are currently self-censoring to get by on a platform that holds monopoly over the majority of public online expression in Iran. One of the recent protest posts by the 1500Tasvir [a prominent protest group] is captioned as follows: “Please listen to the chant, if we write it out we will get censored.”
IN GLOBAL NEWS:
Myanmar’s military is attempting to establish a “digital dictatorship,” according to a June 7 statement by UN human rights experts. The military is imposing internet shutdowns and doubling down on digital censorship and surveillance. “Internet restrictions are being used by the junta as a cloak to hide its ongoing atrocities,” the statement said, referring to the violence that the military has perpetrated around the country since it launched a coup against the civilian-led government in February 2021. In tandem with these more official measures, Mandalay’s new, pro-junta militia — called Thway Thouk, or Blood Comrades — has turned to Telegram and Facebook to garner support for its campaign to murder people who act or speak out against the military. Both social media companies have done little to remove the dangerous actors from their respective platforms, according to news site Frontier Myanmar.
The digital front line in Russia’s war on Ukraine: Last week, hackers attacked the website of the Russian Ministry of Construction and Housing and Communal Services. Attackers asked for a 0.5 bitcoin ransom, and threatened to publish ministry employees’ personal data if they did not receive payment. Since the start of the war, hundreds of Russian state websites have suffered attacks, including state-run media sites, and the websites of the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media and the Ministry of Culture. On Telegram, Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation issues a weekly report on attacks by Ukraine’s IT Army, a group of international and Ukrainian volunteer hackers working in collaboration with officials from Ukraine’s defense ministry. Just last week, it reported carrying out attacks on 450 Kremlin-related online services.
WHAT WE’RE READING:
- Federal privacy legislation may finally be on the horizon in the U.S. A bipartisan group in Congress recently introduced a data privacy bill that would require tech companies to allow people to opt out of targeted advertising, but the proposal has some big hurdles to clear before it can become law. Read more here.
- The Chinese Communist Party is targeting outspoken Asian women — journalists in particular — with large public platforms, according to an analysis by The Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “This latest campaign, in both English and Mandarin, includes a spectrum of psychological abuse, harassment, mass trolling and threats,” write Albert Zhang and Danielle Cave.
- Sudanese journalist Mohamed Suliman offers a thought-provoking look at how social media platforms serve people their online memories through murky algorithms — and what can be done to give them back to users.
- VICE reported on the exploits of an AI bot, trained on a notoriously toxic 4Chan board, that quickly learned to replicate posters’ vile hate speech.
- Meanwhile, AI experts and enthusiasts are debating the likelihood that an AI chatbot developed at Google is “sentient” — an engineer at the company has been placed on administrative leave for saying so. But as one AI ethicist asked, when we think about all the harms AI has wrought so far, should a truly intelligent one really be our biggest fear?
This article was updated on June 15, 2022, after Coda received a response from a Meta spokesperson regarding the Iranian feminist group’s open letter. “Our teams are looking into the claims made in this letter and will take action on any accounts that break our rules.”