Operation “Spider” and the Struggle to Free Mohammad Yousefi

Raz Zimmt examines the social media campaign in Iran to free activist Mohammad Yousefi.

In early January 2015, the Iranian cyber police arrested social networking activist Mohammad Yousefi on charges of acting against national security and violating the sanctity of Islam. Sources affiliated with the reformist opposition reported that Yousefi, a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student of engineering at Amir Kabir University in Tehran, was transferred to an isolation wing used by the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran’s Evin prison, where he is under severe mental and physical pressure designed to force him to publicly confess to his alleged crimes. Yousefi is accused of having established fictitious Facebook pages using the names of artists, soccer players,  and celebrities to spread content that casts doubt on and ridicules principles of Islam. An announcement  published by the Revolutionary Guards following  his arrest said  that Yousefi was previously arrested by Iranian security forces in December 2009 for  using social networking sites to incite the riots that broke out after the 2009 Iranian presidential elections. He served five months of a four year sentence in Evin prison, as the Court of Appeals delayed implementation of his sentence for five years, probably because there was insufficient evidence for conviction.[1]

When news of Yousefi’s arrest broke in early March, a virtual campaign for his release was launched. Hundreds of Facebook and Twitter users uploaded his details and pictures with the hashtag #FreeMohammadYousefi. Users expressed their support and protested the Iranian authorities’ continuing policy of violating freedom of expression. “I hope that someday no one will be arrested on charges of speaking,” wrote one user.[2] Simultaneously, activists launched a Facebook page to provide updates on the arrest and coordinate activities on Yousefi’s behalf, including collecting signatures on a petition demanding that the Iranian authorities release him immediately.[3] The struggle for Yousefi and other internet activists arrested by the Revolutionary Guards peaked on March 11, when Iranian users flooded the Twitter network with hundreds of tweets expressing support for the detainees and condemning the suppression of online activists by the Revolutionary Guards. Yousefi’s arrest is a result of the increased efforts of the Revolutionary Guards’ recently unveiled "Spider Project" to supervise and restrict SNS. In two press releases, one issued in late January and another in early March, the Revolutionary Guards reported that the Center for Investigating Online Organized Crime had increased its monitoring of SNS, particularly Facebook. According to this press release, the Revolutionary Guards have succeeded in identifying the origins of approximately eight million “likes” on Facebook pages. The goal of the Spider Project is, according to these statements, to make the public aware of the dangers of Facebook and its online crime and immoral activities, in light of  the increasing presence of Farsi speakers on social media.

The  implementation of this project has led to the identification and arrest of several  activists, including Mohammad Yousefi, who was identified in the press release by his initials only. The Revolutionary Guards claimed that these activists were planning – with the assistance of Western governments – to harm  the sanctity of Islam, distribute immoral content, encourage crime, and slander certain people. In the past two years, these activists allegedly launched approximately 350 Facebook pages that were supposedly used to disseminate forbidden content in order to weaken the institution of the family, disseminate “rotten culture,” mock religious beliefs and values, encourage immoral relationships, publish pictures of young women, take advantage of young people, and distribute immoral, anti-religious content on the Internet. The notice published by the Revolutionary Guards also accused Facebook’s international moderators of intentionally encouraging the criminal use of social media by opponents of the Islamic Republic, who are fighting its Islamic Iranian character, by hiding their identities. Managers of sites were also accused of impeding the activity of pages that were launched by people identified with the Islamic Awakening and the Islamic Resistance. The organization stated that it intends to expand its monitoring of online crime in the coming months to encompass additional services, including Instagram, Viber, and WhatsApp.[4]

This crackdown by the Revolutionary Guards is additional evidence of Iran’s ambivalence towards it, which can be explained, inter alia, by the internal power struggle between the government of President Rouhani and the conservative religious establishment. Since the presidential elections in the summer of 2013, senior government officials have been striving to change the official policy that limits use of the Internet and SNS, out of the desire to reduce government interference in the lives of its citizens, based on the idea that the principles of the Revolution must be adapted to changing realities. The government’s changing attitude towards social media is apparent in officials’ increasing awareness of online discourse and their public support for removing legal limitations on its activity. The new government has adopted a relatively liberal position on the subject, and supports easing the blockage of these services. Minister of Communication Mahmoud Vaezi has declared more than once that the government supports making Facebook accessible to Iranians, contrary to the position of the Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content, which is responsible for screening and blocking Internet sites. The conservative religious establishment and law enforcement agencies continue to support restricting access to SNS, which they consider a tool for the infiltration of  Western culture into Iran and an instrument of Western intelligence agencies.[5] Faced with conservative opposition to removing such restrictions, the Iranian government, led by Minister of Communications Vaezi, has recently increased its efforts to launch a “smart filtering” system for websites. This system is intended to allow access to all websites and social media services while preventing access to “immoral” content. Minister Vaezi declared that his ministry lacks the infrastructure necessary to completely filter them, and that he intends to introduce a system that allows access to all sites but not to forbidden content.[6]