The role of internet and social media in Iran’s current female-led protests

The role of internet and social media in Iran’s current female-led protests

Iran is experiencing the biggest protests and demonstrations against the regime since 2009, fuelled by the death of 22-year old Iranian-Kurdish woman Masha Amini*1 on 16 September 2022, arrested by the morality police for “improperly” wearing the hijab. Masha Amini  died while in police custody after three days of coma.

The Iranian population, and especially the youth and women, fed up with the strict and anachronistic moral laws imposed by the theocratic regime and its violence against women, the tremendous economic crisis, the systematic corruption and the widespread political repression, took the streets and protested in over 80 cities, symbolically burning hijabs and demanding the fall of the repressive Islamic Regime. The hashtag #MashaAmini quickly gathered momentum, and in the streets the protesters used banners with the name and face of Masha Amini to demand justice. The demonstrations and protests were immediately met with harsh repression by the government with an ever-growing number of deaths and dozens of arrested journalists, but in the first days videos from Iran’s cities spread quickly on social media, reaching all over the world, showing the magnitude and pervasiveness of the protests by the Iranian population and the heavy repression from the regime.*

As in the previous massive protests in 2009 against President Raisi’s undemocratic election, also now the main weapon for repression by the regime is to shut down internet in the country.

Internet watchdog Netblocks *describes the current cuts as the “most severe internet restrictions in Iran since the deadly crackdown on protests in November 2019, when the country experienced an unprecedented near-complete internet shutdown. This class of internet disruption affects connectivity at the network layer and cannot generally be worked around with the use of circumvention software or VPNs.”

It’s easy to understand how the internet and social media, which in the last decade have gained a central role in voicing discontent and organising demonstrations and protests all around the world, with the emblematic example of the Arab Spring, have immediately been blocked by the regime in an attempt to put an end to the protests and the information spreading among the population in Iran and to the outer world.

Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci recognised “the ability to use digital tools to rapidly amass large numbers of protesters with a common goal empowers movements”(Tufekci, 23: 2017), and Macedonian scholar Sandra Ristovska added how new media activism “helps recognize and legitimize human rights violations as they unfold” (Ristovska, 2021, p.178).

Digital technologies expert and scholar Amy O’Donnell explains how “Online communications can post breaking news and almost instantaneously create movements to challenge injustices and change the world, using pre-existing networks of friends and contacts, and creating new networks and coalitions to push forward on shared priorities. This can happen both on- and off-line, in cyberspaces and city squares”(p224).

O’Donnell also recognises social media the power of portraying the brutal realities in real time, which can lead to concrete outcomes that benefit women (O’Donnell and Sweetman, 2018: 3), giving as an example the #Metoo movement that thanks to social media and internet quickly became a global movement with significant changes in society both in terms of awareness, attitude and in some countries even legislation.

In Iran social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been banned for several years, with only Instagram accessible before it was restricted across all major internet providers during the protests on 21 September 2022. The restrictions quickly followed also for the messaging app WhatsApp, widely used to organise and mobilise demonstrations and also as an important informational channel for Iranians in the country to keep in touch with the Iranian diaspora in the world. Subsequently, even other online communication platforms such as LinkedIn and Skype were blocked. Mobile networks were disrupted leaving the population completely offline in a country that is highly dependent on mobile service, as accurately monitored and reported by Netblocks.

Internet outages and the impossibility of social media and information access are aimed at limiting and erasing the population’s ability to voice what’s going on, express political discontent, demand justice, communicate freely and organise demonstrations and protests. In an article in German newspaper Deutsche Welle (DW)*4, Saeed Dehghan, a Tehran-based human rights lawyer, explains that “the Internet shutdown has a clear purpose: police and security forces will crack down on demonstrations and massacre them. The world must not see the pictures of this”, showing that who control ICT, internet and social media access has the power, and that blocking ICT has become a central strategy by authoritarian regimes in order to hide the protests and cover the violent repression on the population to the eyes of the international community.

Isik Mater from NetBlocks told the BBC*5 “The internet is one of the biggest tools that the Iranian authorities have got in their hands when unrest breaks out on the streets. Because there is no private broadcast network in Iran, the internet is the “only place” where protesters can share their voice.”

Shayan Sardarizadeh from the BBC‘s disinformation unit explains: ”Shutting down internet connections nationwide is the nuclear option for Iranian authorities, only triggered when they fear protests are on a scale that pose an existential threat to the regime. It is an effective tool that severely harms the ability of protesters to organise, communicate and inform the outside world, but it also carries a huge cost for the Iranian economy, businesses and public services. However, Iranian authorities have shown time and again that when faced with a choice between a severe hit to the economy and cracking down on political unrest at any cost, they will always choose the latter”.

As British scholar Richard Heeks explains, authoritarian regimes have moved from a first internet rejection, that was politically and economically inconvenient (called the “dictatorship’s dilemma”), to a phase of internet controlling (with filters, censorship, disconnecting and outages) to a proactive phase of e-repression with e-surveillance, propaganda dissemination, disinformation and hackers’ attacks against political challengers (p371).

As protests have grown in Iran, platforms like Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp (that despite the blockade were previously accessible using VPN to circumnavigate censorship), have become key rallying points for protesters to gather discontent, anger and outrage, to organise and mobilise offline protests in the streets. While some raised critical voices towards the unclear responsibility of these huge tech companies in silencing what is going on in Iran, WhatsApp made an unusual public statement on Twitter:*6

As argued by many scholars, ICT reflects society, and it’s a tool that can both enhance democratic development and repress it, depending on in which hands and which purpose it follows. The role of tech giants in this process is undeniably important, considering the risk that sensitive data on citizens’ social media activity and political affiliation can be used by authoritative governments to repress dissent, a major risk connected to the use of technology that George Orwell anticipated already in 1949 in the dystopian cult novel “1984”.

What makes these protests different from the previous ones in Iran, is the massive mobilisation of the younger generation and women, to the point that many call it “Female-led revolution” or “Feminist revolution”.

“In a country that has been a strict theocracy since 1979, Generation Z (born between 1996 and 2016, known in many countries as Zoomers or the “always online” generation) it is the generation from which the clerical elite is in many cases completely disconnected”, explains The National News*7.

The Iranian youth, since long denouncing the double standard of the strict moral laws in the country, with famous Instagram accounts such as RKOT The Rich Kids of Tehran*8, showing the ultra-privileged and decadent lifestyle of the sons and daughters of the political and economical elite (supporting the anachronistic moral laws and the repressive regime in pubic, but living a decadent life recalling the edge of the Western freedom with parties, alcohol, luxury,  and promiscuousness in private and on the account), used their wide audience to voice the protests after Masha Amini’s death, posting calls to international media to report what’s going on in Iran and showing videos of brutal police abuse and courageous rebellion from young women. The RKOT-account, previously frivolously showcasing the Hollywoodian-lookalike lifestyle of the wealthy Iranian young elite, as a secret window into the closed private social sphere of a country where gatherings, alcohol, parties, music and “immoral” clothes are forbidden and brutally punished, now has become a platform to reach the outer world and urge international media to show the world the violent repressions.

“Social media has been key in amplifying the voices of those inside Iran and giving the protests international attention at a time when the government is trying hard to stifle them by shutting down the internet,” says Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa region at Crisis Group, in The National News*7.

What is interesting, at the time of writing, is how such a popular Instagram account such as RKOT hasn’t been shot down and how the people behind it have not been persecuted after posting content about the current protests. As Roberts explains in Digital Development- what’s in a name?Appropriating Technology, “after all the use of technology is never neutral and always reflects particular interests”.

Despite the internet cutouts severely limiting the dissemination of news on the evolution of the protests in Iran, some news of enduring protests, further killings of young girls demonstrating publicly in the streets, massive incarceration of journalists, violence against students assaulted by the regime in Universities and “training camps” to discipline “rebellious” students have reached the international community. The hashtag #MashaAmini has become the symbol for women’s liberation’s fight, which in just a couple of days have mobilised people all over the world showing support for Iranian women. In many cities worldwide demonstrations have taken place, and many women, including many female celebrities have embraced the cause cutting their hairs and posting them to the Iranian Embassies and Consulates in their countries, as a sign of solidarity with Iranian women, demanding an end to violence and the regime.

The parallel with the #Metoo*10 hashtag and movement in the engagement of female international celebrities in Iranian women’s fight for freedom are many, but the main difference is that this time they don’t speak up for their own experience, but support other women’s fight, women that are underprivileged, not belonging to the Western white celebrity elite, but instead live in one of the world’s most repressive and misogynist regimes. This time they spend their voices for the silenced, they lend their voices to the arrested, abused and killed Iranian sisters, in an act of global solidarity, raising awareness and demanding justice and freedom on behalf of Iranian women, urging the UN and Western powers to take concrete political action to support the Iranian population, victim of the Islamic Regime, as British-Iranian actress Elika Ashoori explains in this video.*11


The role of ICT, internet and social media has proven to be central in the current protests and demonstrations against the repressive regime in Iran, and the quick response in shutting down internet access and social media platforms by the government has been the main weapon in silencing and stopping the uprising and the information leak within and outside the country’s borders. In this case ICT have succeeded in engaging the younger population, the one used to live a public life with very limited freedom due to the strict moral laws, and at the same time used to live a digital life with significant more freedom, with other set of values (globalised, liberal, western and progressive), different aspirations and desires as the one imposed by the Islamic regime, as the emblematic example of the Instagram account RKOT shows. This dichotomy between the online and offline, the private digital life and the public offline life of young Iranians has been possible despite the strict bans to the major social media platforms and the internet censorship imposed by the theocratic regime. ICT and internet have succeeded in bringing liberal, modern, progressive values in one of the world’s most conservative countries, thanks to the globalisation power of internet, showing the Iranian youth how their peers live in other countries, with more freedom, human rights and economic stability and wealth, making them aware of other realities and demanding similar rights and living standards. The role of ICT, internet and social media has been crucial in voicing the protests in Iran and giving visibility to the violent repressions against the population, both in the country and in the international community, making possible a global wave of support and solidarity. This might have a positive impact in the long term on the outcomes of these events and create a significant societal change, hopefully towards a democratic development process. In the meanwhile, ICT and internet will hopefully continue to allow us to follow how the situation evolves, and each of us empathising with the Iranian people’s fight for freedom can put pressure on the international community to take concrete political action.

References & literature

– Tufekci, Z. (2017) Twitter and Tear Gas – The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

– Ristovska, S. (2021) Seeing Human Rights: Video Activism as a Proxy Profession. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

O’Donnell, A. & Sweetman, C. (2018) Introduction: Gender, development and ICTs. Gender and Development, 26:2, 217-229.

Heeks, R. (2017) Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Abingdon: Routledge.

– Roberts, T. (2019)- Digital Development- what’s in a name?Appropriating Technology, 9 August.pdf

– Hopkins, S. (2018)- UN celebrity ‘It’ girls as public relations-ised humanitarianismLinks to an external site., International Communication Gazette 80-3, 273-292.

– George Orwell (1949) “1984”, Secker & Warburg.


*1   The New York Times, 2022/09/24,

*2 Fazila Baloch tweet  [@IFazilaBaloch], 23/09/2022,

*3 Netblocks website

*4 DW, 22/09/2022, US sanctions Iran’s morality police for ‘abuse’ against women

*5  BBC, 24/09/2022, Iran unrest: What’s going on with Iran and the internet?,

*6  Whatsapp’s tweet  [@WhatsApp], 22/09/2022,

*7 The National News, 28/09/2022, What’s happening in Iran and how has social media helped movement against morality police?,

*8  The Rich Kids Of Tehran Instagram account

*9 Jemimah Steinfeldtwitter [@JFSteinfeld], 12/10/2022,

– *10 Metoo wikipedia

*11ABC News, 6/10/2022, Celebrities cutting off locks of their hair in solidarity with Iran’s ‘Feminist Revolution’