Unstoppable Force, Immovable Object: Iranian Resilience in a Censored Society

by Jeanette Si

Perhaps the most important trait that Iranians have developed from living in a highly-censored society, says Simin Kargar, is determination.

“One of the major consumers of [online] porn content … [is] Iranians. That is the type of content [which is] completely banned in the country, and yet there’s a huge market for it,” she said.

Which is strange, considering that Iran has one of the most invasive filters targeting online pornographic content in the world. But Iranians, as Kargar knows them, are willing to leave no stone unturned when it comes to getting something they want.

As a fellow for the Berkman Klein Center studying censorship practices in her home country, Kargar is no stranger to the technosocial acrobatics that Iranians are willing to undergo to obtain unfiltered information. Her family, for instance, was one of the earliest adopters of satellite television -- a source of undoctored information for Iranians.

“Having a satellite dish and having access to satellite television was -- and still is -- illegal in Iran,” said Kargar. “[I]f you were caught having that kind of equipment, [the equipment] would be confiscated. You may even be subjected to fines.”

However, Kargar believes that satellite television was largely responsible for shaping the way she thought about the world.

“[Having a satellite dish] dramatically changed the way I perceived the world and gave me this uncensored lens towards what is happening elsewhere. I think that to a great extent shaped the way I made decisions for my future,” she said.

It comes as no surprise that many other Iranians also realize the value of having access to information from the outside world. According to Kargar, official statistics say that despite the legal ban, 25% of Iranian households have access to satellite television. Unofficial statistics put the number closer to 70-90%, suggesting that a large number of Iranians hold a purposeful disregard for the government’s censorship rules.

And the advent of the Internet has only seemed to further whet this rebellious spirit.

“A few years ago, there was this growing body of jokes circulating online through Viber … about Ayatollah Khomeini, who is the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” said Kargar. “[P]eople had found the courage to take his quotes, or political, social, and religious statements and … disseminate them in very funny ways that later turned into memes.”

To make fun of such an important figure to the Iranian government would have been unheard of 20 years ago, and now the once-revered leader is a revered meme character. Though the government eventually intervened, shutting down Viber and arresting many of the group admins, Kargar says that this movement is merely one of many subversions against the government’s oppression.

“I think … the government became much more vigilant about [social media filtering] in 2009 and the run-up to the presidential election back then as well as its aftermath,” she said. “The election turned out to be fraudulent, so it took a lot of people to the streets and created something later on referred to as the Green Movement. But that [was a watershed moment that] immensely changed the way the people of Iran used social media to receive information and to disseminate it.”

Today, censoring the Internet poses a unique challenge for the Iranian government -- it’s a medium like no other, largely decentralized in structure and highly participatory. There is no such thing as an “Internet HQ” to attack, and anyone with a computer can be a potential threat to the government’s policies. On top of this, VPNs and other technologies can easily exploit any holes in the filter, to the point where blocking access to content is seeming like less and less of a viable solution for the Iranian government.

“For a long period of time, the government’s strategy was to block access and filter things and not let people see content. But the Internet doesn’t work that way, so that decentralized structure of the Internet makes it a lot harder for the Iranian government, who loves any central mechanism for exerting control over how people consume information. That stands in contrast to what the government is traditionally used to,” said Kargar.

Instead of limiting the amount of information that their citizens can access, the Iranian government is now playing with the opposite strategy -- flooding the Internet with an overabundance of propaganda and misinformation. Instagram and Telegram are among the very few platforms allowed within the country, but Kargar says that the government often utilizes cyber-mobs and other crowd techniques to inundate them with its own propaganda to drown out “unwanted” posts.

Her own research at the Berkman Klein Center focuses on these state-sponsored “grassroots” campaigns and on how to differentiate state-sponsored posts from those of unaffiliated posters.

“It’s been challenging because the terms that [the cyber-mobs] use are very similar to those of regular people. You have to be really careful … where you draw the line between .... [content that is] state-sponsored and [content that is] not,” said Kargar.

Kargar adds that anyone could be a state-sponsored poster, from the average commenter to influencers with huge followings. And there may be more of them than we think.

“It’s unclear … to what extent those people are paid directly by the government, but there is evidence … that the government has hired volunteers to report inappropriate content on the Internet,” she said. “A few months ago there was this piece of news indicating that they had hired 18,000 volunteers. There are [also] social media influencers that have played a key role in terms of … promoting attacks against a certain journalist or media producer.”

Since many of these recruited volunteers are working because of ideological reasons, they can be especially intrepid once they’ve been given an “official” purpose.

“Whenever you insert ideology in order to recruit people, that pays off much faster because people think they’re working from [their] hearts, and they put everything into it,” said Kargar. “This is a global trend that the governments are adopting to promote whatever they want. And it’s a very cheap weapon.”

But for Iranians, this is all old hat -- having been subjected to government propaganda for so long, they’ve cultivated a healthy sense of skepticism towards hearsay, online posts, and “fake news.” And the Internet has only added more layers of complexity to the process.

“In Iran, everyone is hyper-aware of the restrictions that the government has imposed on them and the way that has changed their lives,” said Kargar. “Whatever issue you talk about, even in cabs or group chats -- when people talk about certain news or events, usually at least one person in a [group] will likely pose the question ‘wait, is this state propaganda?’ or ‘have you actually verified this?’”

This “question everything” Iranian attitude, coupled with efforts from diaspora and civil society, gives Kargar optimism about Iran’s future. She remembers a call that she received from an Iranian who had been overjoyed at receiving one of the informational packages on LGBTQ that her team sent into Iran last year, and just how much the information had changed this person’s life.

“[T]his LGBTQ person from Iran contacted us and kept saying that ‘I need help, I’m sick, I need your help because I received your content.’ And we didn’t really get what he was referring to until one of my colleagues called him and he was like ‘Okay, this person is trans, and they live in this rural town in south[ern] Iran and do not have access to any therapist or sexologist or any kind of support,’” she said.

Through NetFreedom Pioneers, a nonprofit that promotes freedom of information, this caller was put in touch with LGBTQ organizations and counseling so that he could reconcile their identity, receive support, and connect with other trans people. For Kargar, this was an experience that showed her the power of information and just how much of an impact her work and research has on the lives of individuals.

“[Information] changes the way you see the world and your place in the world, and you may not even realize it until something like this happens and new doors open. And that’s what a lot of Iranian people hit in different ways -- for me, it was satellite television. For someone else, it was this package they received,” she said. “These are the moments you actually realize that ‘Oh, the work I’m doing is making an impact on the lives of people!’”