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Iran's Social-Media Struggles Laid Bare By Telegram And Cleric's Viral Moment

Iranians display their smart phones using the Telegram messenger application, which was officially blocked in the country about a year ago. (file photo)

About a year ago, Iran blocked the highly popular messaging app Telegram, an encrypted tool that half the country's 81 million people used for sharing news and information, debating in private, and conducting business.

Authorities had reportedly boasted that "the blocking of the Telegram app should prevent users from accessing it via VPN" -- the virtual private networks that create hidden point-to-point connections on existing infrastructure -- "or any other software."

But polling cited by official media and an embarrassing gaffe on state TV suggest that the clerically dominated leadership's policies on social media and other digital platforms might be missing their mark.

That includes their ballyhooed efforts to convert Iranians to homegrown apps and possibly even a "national internet."

​Recent figures from the Tehran-based Iranian Student Polling Agency (ISPA) and quoted by local media including government news agency IRNA suggest that Telegram is again the country's most popular app, with a tool that authorities have threatened to ban, Instagram, in second.

RFE/RL journalists cannot access the ISPA's proprietary research.

But Iranian media have cited ISPA research from February to March showing the portion of Telegram users in the country was back up to 56 percent, after having fallen from 60 percent to around 47 percent after the ban was announced in May 2018.

"Filtering could not prevent people from [using] Telegram," IRNA wrote alongside an April 7 graphic of the ISPA's findings.

'Information Haves And Have-Nots'

Iran routinely filters tens of thousands of websites, including news sites and social-media networks, but Iranians frequently access banned sites through VPNs and other anti-filtering tools.

Such policies remain a target of Tehran critics -- including U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook in an opinion piece this week in The New York Times -- who accuse it of bifurcating Iranian society into information haves and have-nots, with bans enforced against average citizens but ignored when the offenders are political or religious elites.

A video clip that has been viral for months appears to underscore that perception.

In it, Friday Prayers leader in northwestern Iran Hojotoleslam Ashghar Jodayi casually acknowledges using Telegram and Instagram on state TV.

"Excuse me, sir, but Telegram has been filtered," the moderator responds as he bursts into laughter.

Seemingly recognizing his verbal slip, the cleric quickly says he was of course referring to "that time" and jokes that his Telegram was not filtered.

"If we're concerned about the damage from Telegram, blocking it is not the solution," he then says, adding that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has encouraged cyberactivities to confront "the enemy."

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei quit Telegram last year for domestic alternatives.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei quit Telegram last year for domestic alternatives.

Mobile messaging apps are used around the world to text and share news and information, photos, and videos with friends and others with smartphones. Encrypted apps seek to ensure varying levels of privacy to their users, including protection from government prying.

Iranians use Telegram to access and share uncensored news and information and content deemed sensitive by Iran's postrevolutionary regime. But they also use it to stay in touch with friends and relatives at home and abroad, engage in debates and conduct advertising and business.

Some activists were said to have used Telegram to organize protests in December 2017 over economic grievances and to share footage of the demonstrations. Authorities temporarily banned Telegram and Instagram, citing security concerns.

Indefinite Filtering

The indefinite filtering of Telegram on the grounds that it endangered national security was ordered by Iran's hard-line Judiciary in May 2018 amid a state push for Iranians to use homegrown messaging apps.

President Hassan Rohani and his communications minister opposed the ban, and many Iranians have appeared to be reluctant to entrust their privacy to the state.

Even Khamenei, a hard-line cleric who has the last word on political and religious affairs in Iran, only quit Telegram last year when he announced he was joining the domestic alternatives, including Soroush and iGap.

But the economic daily Donya-e Eghtesad reported recently that 2 percent of Iran's social-media users have joined Soroush.

Iran's official media outlets also stopped posting on their Telegram channels while joining homegrown apps.

But even some hard-line media like state-controlled television have reactivated their news channels on Telegram.

The official website of Iran's government also has a Telegram channel.

Khamenei's Telegram channel remains inactive.

But like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and many other officials, Khamenei is active on Twitter, which is also banned inside the country.