Virtual Election Campaigns: Social Media in the Iranian Electoral Process

Raz Zimmt analyzes the role of social media in the recent Iranian elections.

Campaign poster circulated on Telegram to encourage people to vote in Iran parliament elections.
Campaign poster circulated on Telegram to encourage people to vote

On February 26, Iran held elections for their parliament (Majlis) and the Assembly of Experts,[1] after an election campaign in which social networking sites (SNS) played a conspicuous role. SNS were the arena where the main political forces, and candidates on their behalf, conducted their campaigns. The use of SNS was already evident in the presidential elections held in the summer of 2013, mostly on Facebook and blogs, but the extent of the phenomenon in the most recent election campaign was unprecedented. Reformists and the more moderate supporters of the government made the most use of SNS but they were also joined by conservatives, who had previously adopted an antagonistic attitude towards SNS.

A survey published on the conservative Iranian website Tabnak showed that 61% of Iranian citizens considered cellular and Internet SNS their most important source of information regarding the elections, while approximately 20% obtained most of their information from the official, authorized media; some 13% drew it from their participation in campaign events, and only 5% from campaign advertising in the street.[2] The use of the Telegram instant messaging app was particularly conspicuous. Telegram is considered the most secure app for cellular phones and is very common in Iran with more than 20 million users.[3] After the elections, the chief of the Iranian Cyber Police reported that 79% of all election activity on SNS was on Telegram.[4] The activity on Telegram included dozens of channels and special groups that were used to transmit ongoing updates regarding the elections, publish lists of candidates, present the candidates in various districts, and distribute surveys. The widespread use of Telegram for election propaganda led to a wave of speculations about the possibility that the authorities would block the network shortly prior to the elections.[5] The speculation did not eventually come to pass, but it is not clear whether that was because of the regime’s policy considerations, or technical constraints that prevented them from blocking it.

The transformation of SNS into a central player in the elections sparked the interest of traditional media. An article published by the IRNA news agency claimed that SNS were more influential in the elections than newspapers and television. Media researcher Zahra Joadya noted that unlike the presidential election, in which there are only a few candidates, there were thousands of candidates running for the Majlis. Thus SNS became the most efficient and influential channel for conducting election campaigns, because the traditional media has difficulty providing a platform for so many candidates. The role of official newspapers and media outlets in shaping public opinion has diminished, in her opinion, relative to the past, primarily among younger people who are more active on SNS.[6]

The activity of reformists and moderates on SNS was particularly conspicuous. The conservatives’ control of most traditional media outlets in Iran has, in recent years, turned SNS into the main arena where the reformists are active. In the previous elections to the Majlis (2012) reformists called for boycotting the election. However this time they took a different approach, and used SNS to call on citizens to turn out en masse and vote. They also used SNS to raise controversial political demands, such as the release of political prisoners including the reformist opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been held under house arrest since February 2011. The reformists took advantage of those channels of communications that are not under government supervision in order to recruit former president Mohammad Khatami. Khatami’s pictures are not allowed to be published by Iranian media outlets due to his involvement in protests that erupted after the presidential elections in the summer of 2009, which are still widely supported by the public.[7]

The most conspicuous virtual campaign launched by reformist activists on SNS presented politicians, cultural celebrities, well-known athletes and ordinary citizens showing a bandaged finger and declaring their intention to vote. This campaign was designed to transmit the message that despite the severe limitations the authorities placed on reformists’ running for office, voting remains an essential key for creating change.[8] The campaign had a tangible impact and influenced many citizens to vote for moderate candidates. There is no doubt that it made a significant contribution to the moderates’ impressive achievements in the elections, particularly in Tehran, where moderates won all 30 seats in the Majlis that are allocated to the Tehran district.

Another campaign showed artists and cultural figures commenting on the cultural persecution and economic distress they experienced under the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Majlis dominated by right-wing conservatives, and calling on citizens to vote for candidates who support President Hassan Rouhani.[9]

Despite the dominance of moderates on SNS, the conservative opponents of the government were not absent, even though the attitude of right-wing conservatives in Iran is traditionally characterized by a more skeptical attitude towards SNS. The conservative establishment considers the Internet and SNS to be tools in the service of a “cultural offensive” that enemies of the revolution have mounted against it, and as channels that serve Western intelligence agencies. However, the high penetration of SNS in the population, particularly among young people, has led to increased use of networks by conservative forces that want to disseminate the values of Islam and the revolution. The last election campaign provided additional evidence for the increasing use of SNS for the political and propaganda needs of conservative parties.

The most conspicuous conservative campaign was designed to present the moderate candidates as collaborators with the West, particularly Great Britain, which is still perceived as the traditional archenemy of Iran, one that strives to intervene and influence Iranian politics and society, particularly through the BBC broadcasts in Persian. This perspective was also presented by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a speech on 17 February in which he claimed that the BBC had issued instructions to Iranian citizens telling them how to vote.[10] Shortly thereafter, radical right-wing supporters of the regime launched a campaign on SNS calling on citizens to fight against British attempts to influence the election campaign and avoid voting for “candidates supported by the BBC.”[11]

The use of SNS continued on the election days themselves, when an attempt was made to use them for manipulative purposes and spread rumors. The reformists, for example, claimed that forces from the conservative right-wing were spreading false reports about the authorities’ intention to close schools on the day after elections. These reports were intended, they claim, to encourage citizens to travel outside of their election district, which would keep them from voting. Presumably that would serve conservative interests, because the moderates have generally been supported by a broader public.[12] Conservatives, for their part, accused the reformists of attempting to diminish their public status, for example by spreading pictures manipulated in Photoshop that supposedly showed conservative candidates, who the conservatives claimed were not on their lists - in provocative poses.[13]

In conclusion, the election campaigns for the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts brought the use of SNS, especially Telegram, to new heights, in both the reformist-moderate and the conservative camps. There is no doubt that this development also affected the election results, especially in the Tehran district where moderates won a landslide victory. Making SNS the main campaign arena gave the Iranian public access to information, which was previously limited by the government’s control of most of the media. However, it also provided the regime with additional means for the mass distribution of its messages on its behalf, and ways to oversee the flow of information.



[1] Elections for the 290 members of Majlis are held once every four years. Although most political authority is held by the Supreme Leader, Majlis does have some authority under the Constitution including ratification of international treaties and agreements, approving the state budget and the ability to remove government ministers or prevent their appointment. In certain circumstances, the Majlis can even recommend unseating the president. Elections for the Assembly of Experts, which consists of 88 religious leaders, are held once every eight years. Under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Assembly is responsible supervising the activity of the Supreme Leader, appointing a successor and even removing him from office if he is no longer capable of fulfilling his duties.

[2] “Will representatives to the 10th Majlis come from Telegram?”, Tabnak, 20 February 2016.

[3] For more on this subject see Raz Zimmt “Telegram: The Most Popular Social Network in Iran,” Beehive, January 2016.

[4] “Telegram’s share in the elections: 79%,” Gooya News, 8 March 2016.

[5] “Possibility of blocking telegram on election day,” Farda News, 21 February 2016

[6] "Social networks: a central actor in election propaganda,” IRNA, 22 February 2016

[7] A photograph of former president Khatami and posters calling for the release of political prisoners were published, for example on this telegram channel:

[10] Khamenei’s speech to citizens in East Azerbaijan Province from the official site of the Supreme Leader, 17 February 2016.

[13] “Destroying conservatives by using models for propaganda purposes,” Mashriq News, 20 February 2016.