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Twitter freedom: The strange case of Iran

Twitter / @HassanRouhani

This statement was originally published on ARTICLE 19's Azad Tribune on 5 May 2015.

By Negar Mortazavi

The current state of internet restriction in Iran is very complex. It contains multiple layers of political, religious and moral constraints that have developed and evolved into an unusual status. Websites are blocked by the state for various reasons that change constantly and the reasons are not always easy to understand. In this complex web of restrictions, the blocking of social networks is a unique case.

Social networks were first introduced to Iran through the first BBS (Bulletin Board System) in the 1990s on national networks. They were soon connected to the international internet and connected Iranian users to the world wide web. Networks were popping up on the internet and Iranians joined millions of internet users in thousands of chat rooms and messengers across the world. But internet was still a new phenomena and not a big portion of the Iranian society was part of it.

Later in the 2000s, the Persian blogosphere (Weblogistan) flourished and became one of the most active and visible communities of bloggers in the world. It was a platform where young Iranians were able to express themselves in a society that was going through massive change and transformation. Blogs became powerful tools and provided unfiltered platforms to everyday citizens to express themselves to large audiences. It was then that the state entered this cyber extension of the society; some bloggers were arrested, some blogs were blocked and online content started to be seriously monitored.

But it was not until 2009 that social networks officially entered Iranian politics. During the 2009 presidential election, social networks played a visible role in boosting election campaigns online. Then during the post-election protests, people used social networks to organize protests and disseminate information. Again the state started to crack down on active users and block access to the major networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

The 2013 presidential election saw a major shift by the establishment. Candidates entered the online space and for the first time, acknowledged the positive role of social networks in politics. Online debates helped shape the discourse of elections and users played a key role in determining the final election results.

The presidency of Hassan Rouhani started a new era of official presence on social networks. The president's office uses multiple networks to broadcast news, boost support for policy and connect to citizens. His team occasionally interact with users online, which has not been practiced in the Iranian political sphere.

Members of cabinet have also been encouraged to join social networks and create a dialogue with users online. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, is the most successful Iranian official online and has used Twitter and Facebook as powerful tools for diplomacy and news. Twitter has provided a live platform for news and views on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers.

After government officials joined social networks, it paved the way for Iranian journalists and media outlets to also establish an official presence online. Other official entities and organizations such as Tehran and Tabriz municipalities have also joined the networks.

Twitter also created a bridge between journalists inside and outside of Iran, long disconnected from each other. After the 2009 election protests, foreign-based Iranian journalists, like myself, have been cut off from our colleagues inside Iran. The Twitter coverage of nuclear talks in the past two years has brought these two groups of journalists closer. The use of one platform has created a space for close collaboration among all journalists, regardless of their media affiliation.

Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook remain filtered in Iran and Iranian users need to have circumvention tools to be able to bypass filters and access these networks where the country's Supreme Leader, President and Ministers are talking to the citizens.

Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist and commentator based in New York.She has worked as a television host at Voice of America in Washington. She is one of the leading Iranian voices on Twitter and Guardian has named her among the top 10 people to follow for Iran. She tweets at @negarmortazavi.

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