Iranian women’s rights activists face new online threats

Image courtesy FEMENA

In May 2022, dozens of Instagram pages belonging to Iranian women’s rights activists received thousands of new followers from unknown users. This massive uptick in follows raised concerns in the country’s feminist and women’s rights community, which has often been a target of state-backed attacksMany were afraid that this was a tactic by Iranian government actors to either infiltrate their pages with bots or abuse the Instagram reporting system to suspend their accounts. All the pages that were targeted covered women’s rights and LGBTQI+ issues, with some based inside the country and others abroad. Many activists whose accounts had broad reach have since decided to make their pages private. Such online harassment is an extension of offline harassment that women’s rights defenders have faced for years and comes amid a recent wave of arrests and interrogations.

“They had threatened or summoned for questioning most account managers who were inside the country, and now these Instagram pages are being attacked, but we won't stop,” said one women’s rights activist whose page was recently targeted.

This is not the first time that Iranian women's rights defenders have been targeted online in a coordinated fashion. Over the past few years, there has been a noticeable rise in the harassment of Iranian activists on the internet. This has taken the form of hate speech and direct threats of violence, usually from anonymous or fake named accounts on social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter.

But, in Iran, such online attacks put a target on the backs of activists and can lead to real-life consequences. In many cases, coordinated online harassment has been a precursor to summons from security agencies as well as prison sentences. Many women’s rights defenders in the country do not report online threats to the authorities because legal provisions are neither clear nor are they supportive, and the defenders run the risk of being detained or prosecuted as a result of their social media posts.

As such, the only recourse for Iranian activists to combat online attacks is to use the complaint mechanisms of social media platforms and, if that fails, to close their accounts or make them private. Given this, social media companies such as Instagram and Twitter have a huge responsibility to protect activists and Iranian users.

The reporting feature on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms has major shortcomings for Iranian activists facing online attacks, who deal with a broad range of harassment, including sexual harassment, cyberbullying, and impersonation. There are also often coordinated attacks launched against them that abuse the reporting mechanisms within social media platforms and allow security agencies to take down the accounts of rights defenders. These operations are sophisticated and in many cases take advantage of bugs in these platforms.

Against this backdrop, it is evident that a core issue is the lack of communication between Iranian activists and the major social media companies. Social media and technology companies need to stay abreast of the Iranian government's policies because these policies can serve as a guide on how to combat state-sponsored attacks against users and especially rights defenders. 

The trials and tribulations that Iranian women’s rights activists are facing online comes at a time when they are more dependent than ever before on the Internet to get their voices heard. Women’s rights have been continuously challenged for decades in Iran.  Everyday Iranian women wake up to a new bill, law, or order from the government that restricts their freedom or seeks to push back their social gains. For example, in November 2021, Iran’s Guardian Council approved a law known as the “Rejuvenation of the Population” which severely undermines women’s reproductive health and their bodily autonomy by restricting access to birth control, further outlaws abortion, and even prohibits prenatal testing for pregnant women. Furthermore, women’s rights defenders are regularly targeted by state security forces for interrogation, detention, and even long prison sentences. Many women human rights defenders working in an array of fields advocating women’s rights, workers rights, child rights, access to information, freedom of the press, etc., have been sentenced to prison or are already serving long prison sentences and their numbers are on the rise.

In the face of such repression and ceaseless crackdowns by the government, Iranian women’s rights activists have been forced to reduce their activities in physical spaces and rely more on social media to raise awareness and create momentum for their demands. In particular, feminist activists have relied on Instagram, which is one of the most popular social media platforms in Iran and has not yet been blocked by the government. Activists are increasingly dependent on Instagram to raise awareness about gender discrimination, prevent sexual harassment in public spaces and in the workplace, and promote reproductive justice and women’s bodily rights. 

Unsurprisingly, online activism is also not tolerated by the Iranian government, which has worked tirelessly and for decades to close and restrict civic spaces. The latest targeting of women’s rights defenders and women collectives on Instagram, where a massive influx of follow requests are sent to accounts of women human rights defenders and women’s collectives, is in line with past government targeting and online reporting of activists.  Over the years, many activists including women’s collectives or women’s rights activists have had their accounts disabled following massive reporting or they have lost their reach on Instagram through “shadow bans,” where stories are not shown and their posts fail to appear on search engines after mass reporting of their accounts. But online targeting by the government has not stopped women’s rights activists who continue their activism online and when possible in real life as well. In turn the state security forces have doubled down on their efforts to render rights defenders inactive and to silence them.

“If you scan feeds on social media, you will notice that feminist and women’s rights voices have been louder than ever, and that's why the government is now attacking us, to shut down our voices, but we won't stop,” said the women’s rights activist whose page had recently been the target of attacks.

In response to these developments, on July 25, 2022, a number of rights groups urged Meta, Instagram’s parent company, to protect Iranian women’s rights defenders and cooperate with Iranian civil society in order to create a safer platform. Indeed, major social media companies can act proactively by establishing direct channels of communication with Iranian civil society to have a better understanding of the needs of Iranian civil society, Iran's social media content and how the government suppresses civil society on online platforms. Such a direct channel would help the tech companies prevent the silencing of Iranian activists on their platforms.

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