Demonstrations in the Islamic Republic in the Telegram Era

Raz Zimmt analyzes the December 2017 protests in Iran, the role of social media, and the eventual weakening of those protests.

Protester who removed her hijab in the presence of Iranian security forces.  From Twitter.
Protester who removed her hijab in the presence of Iranian security forces. From ‎Twitter.‎


On 28 December 2017, the most significant wave of protests since the 2009 riots erupted in Iran, which prompted renewed interest in the role of online social networks in promoting social change. In addition to the demonstrators’ widespread use of SNS to promote the protests and disseminate information, these platforms were also used by other political forces, including supporters of the regime and critics of the protests who circulated counter-messages. Furthermore, the authorities imposed strict restrictions on online spaces following the demonstrations, to include blocking access altogether. All these factors present challenges for the potential use of SNS to lead social and political change.

The wave of dissent in Iran began with a local demonstration in Mashhad against the continuing economic crisis. It spread rapidly across Iran and quickly morphed into a political and anti-establishment protest. Demonstrators were not satisfied with merely demanding improvement in the economic situation, and challenged the very fact of clerical rule in Iran. During the protest, calls were heard against the regime, and its’ head, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose pictures was defaced by a number of demonstrators. Additionally, there were isolated attacks on government institutions and on patrol vehicles belonging to the security forces. More than twenty demonstrators were killed, and several thousand were arrested. The intensity of protests began to wane approximately one week following their outbreak, though demonstrations continued throughout the country on a smaller scale.

In contrast to the 2009 riots, which had been led by the reformist movement headed by Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, the current protest operated without known leadership – a phenomenon that has become common around the globe in recent years.  This phenomenon is closely linked to the widespread proliferation of online social networking services (SNS) that have facilitated unprecedented possibilities for leaderless organizing – although the demonstrations in particular cities may have been organized by local activists.

The scale of the 2017 protests, while estimated at tens of thousands of participants, was smaller than that of 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranian citizens took to the streets. On the other hand, the geographical distribution was very broad, with demonstrations held simultaneously in dozens of cities across the country, especially in distant cities in the periphery. The socio-economic composition of the demonstrators was also different than that of past years. While the urban middle class played a central role in the 2009 demonstrations, the current wave of protest was led by the working class and the weaker sectors of the population, who are waging an ongoing struggle as a result of their own economic distress and President Rouhani’s neoliberal economic policy.

Online social networks played a conspicuous role from the very beginning. Demonstrators used them to transmit messages, publish the dates of demonstrations and their locations, and to disseminate thousands of videos documenting the protests themselves. Although the protests were mainly fueled by economic distress, online social networks were used to convey dissident messages opposing the regime on other issues, such as its investments beyond the borders of Iran at the expense of solving the hardships of its citizens, and the policy of enforcing Islamic law. Thus, for example, the picture of a young woman demonstrator, who took off her hijab (head covering), placed it on a pole and waved it in front of the security forces, became a symbol of the protest. Another manifestation of defiance against the regime was initiated by several dozen members of the Basij militia, which is subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards, who uploaded pictures of their Basij membership cards being burnt.

The encrypted message application Telegram played a central role in encouraging the protest. The channel of Amad News, which was established by the exiled Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam and has more than 1.2 million followers, was particularly prominent. In a message to his followers, Zam roused protesters against the regime. This led to Telegram’s decision to close the channel after Iranian Minister of Communications Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi complained to the company’s CEO, Pavel Dorov, that it was being used to incite violence.[1] Shortly thereafter, the regime blocked the use of the application altogether. The Instagram network had already been blocked, while the block on the Chinese messaging application WeChat, which had been imposed about four years ago, was lifted, perhaps in an attempt to encourage its use as a substitute for Telegram.

The authorities’ decision to block social networking services sparked incisive discussion among the public and in the media. ‎Supporters of the regime and senior members of the conservative-religious establishment ‎justified the move by claiming that their use by demonstrators was additional evidence that they are a ‎tool in the hands of Iran’s enemies. The leader of Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad ‎Khatami, claimed that the riots stopped after once the services were blocked, and called on the ‎authorities to demand the transfer of the servers used by the networks to Iran, which would facilitate strict supervision of their activities.[2] Conversely, critics claimed that a sweeping block of social networking services, especially Telegram, would be ineffective because of the widespread use of bypass measures by Iranian citizens. Indeed, shortly after Telegram was blocked, there was a ‎sharp rise in public interest in technological means for circumventing barriers. [3]Some warned ‎that blocking the application would disrupt the lives of citizens and would severely harm ‎the livelihoods of many who rely on social networking to manage their businesses.[4] As the demonstrations faded, the sharp reactions were apparently ‎the basis for President Rouhani’s directive in mid-January to lift the obstruction of Telegram.

In addition to demonstrators’ widespread use of social networking services, the voices of those who opposed the protests were also heard, especially concerning the use of violence and the damage to state symbols. For example, Iranian users condemned incidents in which the Iranian flag was burned and public property was destroyed. “Those who burn the national flag should be deported from Iran,” read one comment.[5] Many users warned against descending into violence, and an online campaign was launched under the slogan “Iran is not Syria” (#ایران _سوریه_نیست) in which the demonstrators were warned not to escalate the situation into a civil war. Opponents to the use of violence included both activists in the reformist camp as well as supporters of the president; they feared that escalation would not only threaten the stability of the regime but also weaken Rouhani’s position. The president’s supporters accused his opponents of having initiated the first demonstrations in Mashhad in order to harm him. A number of reformist activists expressed their preference for the gradual reforms being led by the president over the prospect of violent revolutionary change. In turn, these activists were criticized by users who claimed that there was no longer any expectation that the president could keep his promises or meet the demands of the public. At the same time, many users expressed reservations about any external involvement in their country’s internal affairs, especially by US President Donald Trump, using the hashtag “#ShutUpTrump.” This reflects the sensitivity of the Iranian public about any foreign intervention in their country’s affairs, alongside criticism of Trump’s policy which is prevalent in Iran.

Social networks are not responsible for the basic motivations that ignited the protest movement, which was in fact prompted by economic and social distress and the regime’s failure to meet the public’s demands. Even the decline in the protest cannot be linked to the access limitations placed on the platforms, although it is possible to point to a decrease in the number of demonstrations parallel to the severe restrictions imposed by the authorities on their use. Rather, the protests’ key weaknesses were the lack of leadership, which damaged their ability to continue over time, and the indifference of the urban middle class, especially in Tehran, which invariably chose not to join the demonstrations. However, there is no doubt that the involvement of social media did make a significant contribution to realizing the potential of the public protest. Furthermore, the socio-economic composition of the demonstrators, who were mostly among the weaker sectors of society, attests to the widespread use of these services, and their influence among all segments of the Iranian public.



[1] @azarijahromi, Twitter, 30 December 2017.

[2] “Ayatollah ‎Khatami: When cyberspace was controlled, the protests waned” ISNA, 2 February 2018.

[3] “Astonishing data on Iranians’ uses of the anti-block software,” Tabnak, 6 January 2018,

[4] “Telegram blocked,” Shargh Daily, 1 January 2018.

[5] @BelatriX313, Twitter, 30 December 2017.