“I'm Also a Jerk:” Iranian Social Media and the Struggle for the Release of Reformist Opposition Leaders

Raz Zimmt analyzes the social media campaign for the release of two Iranian opposition leaders.

The scathing criticism of reformist opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi ‎(who have been under house arrest since February 2011) recently voiced by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of Iran’s Guardianship Council and a leading conservative cleric , has stirred up a storm on Iranian social networking sites.

In a speech on February 24, ahead of  the 36th anniversary the Islamic Revolution, Jannati called the two opposition leaders and their wives “the four jerks,” and claimed that they want to resume “their incitement,” contrary to the position of the majority of Iranians who reject them. He further added that those calling for their release deserve to be slapped in the face, because the house arrest is a matter of concern for the entire  regime  not a partisan political issue about which anyone may express an opinion.[1]

Only a few hours after Jannati’s controversial declarations were published, social media users launched a virtual protest. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were flooded with hundreds of responses using  the hashtag: “I am also a jerk.” This tag was not a coincidence; rather, it is reminiscent of the “I am also Charlie” slogan that was widespread online following the January attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The campaign also included the launch of a Facebook page, “I am also a jerk,” which accumulated several hundred likes.[2]

While many users were content to upload content with the hashtag “I am also a jerk,” others expressed their negative opinions of Jannati and their support for the opposition leaders. Some users wrote that if supporting the release of Mousavi and Karroubi had become a criteria for being defined as a “jerk,” they were proud to be jerks. Jannati’s claim that most citizens oppose the release of the opposition leaders was also met with online protests, and many users noted that if everyone who supports the leaders and their release is a jerk, then most Iranians are jerks.[3]

It seems that Jannati’s remarks reaped bushels of criticism because of their vulgar nature. Many users felt that the use of disparaging language was inappropriate, particularly by a leading religious figure. “It’s better to be a jerk than disrespectful,” wrote one user, and added that if “impure, unhealthy people like Jannati have become the criteria for good, honest citizenry,” he was proud to be a jerk.[4] Moreover, the criticism of Jannati – who has been the target of ridicule in recent years because of his advanced age (88) – quickly became personal and included wishes for his demise.

The criticism of Jannati’s comments did not remain limited to social media, but rather spread to the public domain. Reformist activist Mohammad Kianushrad expressed his dismay that the head of the Guardianship Council had joined the strident criticism against those who support resolving the issue of opposition leaders being kept under house arrest. In his opinion, Jannati’s use of vulgar language was a severe blow to the rule of law, and an insult to the citizens, people’s representatives, and political leaders who use legal means to call for an end to the house arrest.[5] Similarly, the reformist website Bahar News published an article claiming that all Iranian citizens have the right to express their opinion on the house arrest of the opposition leaders, and there was no justification for the vulgar language that Jannati used against the supporters of their release. The article further stated that, contrary to Jannati’s claims, their release is supported not only by reformist politicians but also by people close to chairman of the Expediency Council: Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, moderate conservative members of Majlis, and even President Rouhani.[6] An editorial published in another reformist website, Saham News, titled  “Who is a Jerk?” claimed that the jerks were not those calling for the release of opposition leaders and returning Iran to reason and sanity, but rather those political and religious leaders like Jannati, who forged election results to force President Ahmadinejad and his corrupt allies on the nation, thereby perpetuating their control of Iran’s material and spiritual resources.[7]

This is not the first time that declarations by Iranian leaders concerning the reformist opposition leaders have created a stir on social media. In December 2013, an online battle was waged between supporters of the regime and its opponents after top government officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, initiated a vociferous PR campaign against the reformist leaders in response to calls for their release, which intensified during Rouhani’s presidential campaign. The storm aroused by Jannati’s comments is additional evidence of the Iranian public’s continued strong sensitivity to the protests of 2009 that were led by Mousavi and Karroubi. The fact that they and their wives have been held under house arrest for four years is an ongoing reminder that the forceful crushing of the protest movement and resulting trauma remain an unhealed wound in the national psyche. The refusal of national leaders to release the opposition leaders, and the hostility that large swathes of the population consequently feel towards the regime, occasionally turn social media services into an arena for warring over the memory of the 2009 protests and their legacy. This is particularly evident due to the fact that such services in Iran have become an effective tool for the public to disseminate their opinions, unlike the mostly regime-controlled traditional media.