Hassan Rouhani’s Presidential Victory in Iranian Social Media

Raz Zimmt analyzes Iranian SNS’ responses to Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the 2017 Iranian presidential elections, and the demands for reforms that users directed at their newly re-elected president.
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Poster from Twitter: "We won" [in Persian]
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Poster disseminated on Twitter after Rouhani’s election victory, with hashtag “We won.”




Despite the ISIS attack in Tehran on June 7, Hassan Rouhani’s sweeping victory in the May 19 presidential election was the focus of public discourse on Iranian social networking sites (SNS). Prior to the election, SNS were a key tool that candidates from both main political movements used in their campaigns. However, following the election results, while supporters of the president used SNS to express joy and expectations of the newly elected president, supporters of the rival candidate, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, chose to stay away from SNS.

The 2017 presidential election campaign was characterized by widespread use of SNS by all candidates in their efforts to mobilize public support. Unlike previous campaigns, use of SNS was not restricted to the president’s reformist supporters, whose presence on the Internet has been widespread for years. Conservative contenders, headed by Raisi, had a significant SNS presence as well, newly acknowledging SNS’ great influence and effective conveyance of messages to mass audiences. As the election drew closer, conservative candidates increasingly used SNS to elicit support from citizens, especially young people. A few days before the election, Raisi made an ill-fated effort to increase his visibility by uploading a photograph of himself with Iranian rapper Amir Tataloo. The picture was apparently intended to improve Raisi’s image among young voters, but instead provoked ridicule. The conservative cleric is known for his vehement opposition to any hint of Western culture permeating Iranian society, including Western music, and was therefore accused of opportunism.

Even traditional media coverage emphasized SNS’ centrality to the election campaign. In an article published by reformist newspaper Etemad, SNS were called “the most important and influential means in the elections.” The article claimed that Rouhani’s victory was largely made possible by his supporters’ SNS posts, which succeeded in influencing undecided voters. Furthermore, Rouhani’s election speeches were broadcast live to tens of thousands of citizens via Instagram, an alternative to the establishment radio and television channels controlled by unelected government institutions.[1]

In response to the election results, Rouhani’s supporters flooded SNS with expressions of joy. Their reactions were accompanied by hashtags such as, “the heroic story of Ordibehesht” [the Iranian month parallel to May], “We won,” and “Until 1400” [the Iranian year equivalent to 2021, the date of the next presidential elections]. Users uploaded videos of victory celebrations held by the president’s supporters across Iran, congratulations to the newly re-elected president, expressions of joy at the expense of Raisi, and pictures of the reformist opposition leaders, particularly former president Mohammad Khatami, whose images are banned in state media. [2]

At the same time, Rouhani's supporters also used SNS to express their expectations for the president’s second term. Many stressed that the president should use his victory to fulfill his campaign promises, and not to take the public’s support for granted. “Mr. Rouhani: as of today, we will supervise your conduct and will remain your critics. The ability of the reform [movement] to persist is dependent on criticism, and nowadays there is much room for criticism,” tweeted one user.[3] Iranian users created a hashtag, “If I were Rouhani,” and uploaded comments listing demands, mainly regarding improvement of the economic situation and expansion of individual liberties.[4] These responses expressed disappointment ­– even among the president’s supporters – in Rouhani’s limited achievements during his first term, particularly in redressing the Iranian economic and human rights situation. Conservative control of most main centers of power in Iran - including the Supreme Leader’s Office, the judiciary, security forces, law enforcement agencies, and the Revolutionary Guard - made it difficult for the president to keep his promises. Rouhani’s supporters, who are well aware of the limitations of his power, now hope that his sweeping victory will better enable him to fulfill his promises. As one user tweeted, “If I were Rouhani, I would see the number 24 million [the number of votes he received] before my eyes every day, and I would tell myself without fear, for everything I would like to do: ‘Go, do it, the people are behind you.’” [5]

In contrast to Rouhani’s supporters, the SNS presence of Raisi’s supporters diminished significantly following the election result. A number of users affiliated with the conservative camp admitted their failure in the elections, assigning the results to irregularities in the elections or conservatives’ flawed campaign efforts. For example, journalist and conservative scholar Payam Fazlinejad claimed that Rouhani's victory was not surprising given the withdrawal of Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf from the race a few days prior to the elections, and the distribution of Raisi’s controversial picture with rapper Tataloo.[6] The decline in conservatives’ activity on SNS after the elections can be explained by their traditional attitude toward the platform, and the restrictions they place on its use, limited to elections or specific campaigns. This contrasts with the reformists, who view their Internet presence as essential to dissemination of their positions and mobilization of public support, considering the authorities’ control over most of the media.

The Iranian presidential election campaign is another expression of the increasingly politicized use of SNS. There is no doubt that this development  impacted the election results, as the Iranian public was exposed to information to which they formerly had limited access. Although the conservative right now recognizes the importance of SNS, the prominent and continuous presence of the reformists on SNS enables them to more effectively exploit these platforms, both in routine circumstances and during election campaigns. This poses considerable difficulty for the conservative right in mobilizing citizens’ support. As a result, the gap between the Iranian public and the conservative dominated institutions of the regime is deepening.

 



[1] “The Social Networks: The Media Winner of the Elections.” Etemad, 25 May 2017.

[2] Users’ responses to Rouhani’s victory on Twitter, 28 May 2017:

https://goo.gl/Ch1QRH; https://goo.gl/GgGC4F; https://goo.gl/AEGUoJ.

[3]  Twitter, 28 May 2017.

[4] Twitter, 28 May 2017.

[5] Twitter, 28 May 2017.  

[6] Twitter, 28 May 2017.