When you scroll through 17-year-old Roya’s Instagram account, her posts look like the countless others with the same influencer aesthetic. In one, she’s posing at sunset in a beaded blue bralette, beige ’90s-style trousers, and a pair of black Converse high-tops, her long curly hair flicking through the air. The caption: a duck emoji.
But Roya, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, posted her pictures from Tehran, where walking in the street without a hijab — let alone in a bralette top — could get you arrested. Though the risks don’t phase the high school senior. The app is important to her; Instagram is the first thing she checks when she wakes up.
Roya is required by Iranian law to adhere to a certain level of modesty in public. On Instagram, she’s often sleeveless, painting her eyelids with bright-green eyeshadow or pasting little mirror pieces over her face. “We dress up for Instagram; we show the best side of ourselves and our lives,” she explained. “But who I am on Instagram is closer to my reality than the person I am when I walk on the streets.”
As the last open social media platform in Iran, Instagram offers a rare glimpse into the interior lives of everyday Iranians: Feeds are filled with blurry Polaroids of house parties, teens snowboarding, and cosy selfies of unmarried couples — images of scenes either banned or frowned upon by the ultraconservative authorities.
But the Iranian regime’s anxiety about a platform previously seen as nothing more than a vapid social network is mounting, especially after the sweeping anti-government protests last year. Instead of smoothies and selfies, Instagram is becoming a platform for political change in Iran. As government informants move to surveil the app, repression is spreading from the streets to social media, forcing Iranians to recalibrate their online presence.
The last social media platform
Instagram is the only major social media platform accessible to Iranians without a VPN. After Twitter and Facebook were banned in 2009, and Telegram in 2018, the app became the most popular outlet in the country, with more than 24 million users. (Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power on election promises that included improving internet freedom, clocks in with 2.2. million followers on his Instagram account.) Its popularity has grown during the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit Iran in January and has caused more than 42,000 deaths to date. With the virus spreading at an uncontrollable rate, the pandemic kept people indoors — and online — for weeks on end.
Official scrutiny of Instagram began to intensify in December 2018. Iran’s cyber-police announced an unprecedented “society-based” policing initiative, for which 42,000 volunteers were recruited to spy on Iranians’ social media profiles. In February 2019, a number of Iranian Instagram influencers deleted pictures of themselves without hijabs and changed their bios to read, “تابع قوانین جمهوری اسلامی ایران”: “This account abides by the laws of the Islamic Republic.”
Several heavily trafficked accounts like @mahdis_food, a food blogger with more than half a million followers, posted their allegiance to the regime online. In a selfie with her husband, she posted a caption that reads, “I have been asked to join the project to sanitise cyberspace and I have enthusiastically accepted the call.” By November of that year, when authorities arrested 7,000 protesters and effectively shut down the country’s internet for more than 20 days, tensions had risen to a boil.
Roya said the authorities renewed their focus on Instagram after stay-at-home orders were issued in March. “That’s when the hijab law took into place,” she said, referring to a new law passed in May that mandated women wear the traditional headscarf even on social media. “When they couldn’t control people in the streets because we were all quarantining, they were like, Let’s try to control people online and their lives on Instagram.”
While Instagram doesn’t typically attract the type of political debate one might see on Twitter or Facebook, the use of the app has evolved as a means of organizing during the pandemic. In the U.S., where the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired droves of Instagram users to create aesthetically pleasing political images, the platform has become home to a new format for content. In Iran, similar political messaging — color-blocked backgrounds with slogans, hashtags, and chunky texts of information — flooded users’ timelines after the protests last year.
Instagram’s Live feature also became a way for politically motivated influencers to communicate to hundreds of thousands of viewers both in and out of Iran. Kaveh Azarhoosh, an Iranian internet-policy expert based in London, said more than 800 people tuned into the June 3 livestream he hosted with an Iranian political activist about the country’s internet policies. “Although Instagram is not a great platform for organizing, it became okay during the pandemic for people to hold conversations on Live,” said Azarhoosh. “With 800 people watching, it was equivalent to holding a full conference room.”
Mahdieh Golroo utilizes Instagram as a platform for her activism. Golroo, who fled to Sweden after a 93-day stint in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for attending a protest against acid attacks, went live on Instagram several times throughout the spring months. Her IGTV videos, which have an average viewership of 3,000 and target Iranian audiences, address taboo subjects like female circumcision and divorce laws.
While Golroo and Azarhoosh are activists, for influencers, too, Instagram has taken a political turn as the situation in Iran becomes more dire.
As a child, New York–based Iranian fashion designer Milad spent his summers with his grandmother in Tehran. Back then, he said, she would gently remind him that wearing shorts and a tank top, his preferred summer outfit, was not acceptable in public, even for men. When Milad came out as queer, he said, he “consciously exiled” himself from Iran, knowing that his sexuality and his country were irreconcilable. (Homosexuality in Iran is penalized by imprisonment, corporal punishment, and execution.)
After more than seven years away from Iran, Milad said, he’s dependent on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for news from inside the country. “It’s the only way to know what’s happening,” he told Rest of World.
In July, Milad saw his Instagram overwhelmed with political infographics bearing the hashtag #StopExecutions, as Iranians protested — and succeeded in halting — the death sentence given to three young men who had participated in the mass anti-government demonstrations in November. “Instagram has become absolutely vital. We saw how the act of signing a few petitions and widespread sharing put a stop to the execution of three protesters,” said Milad. As soon as the hashtag started gaining traction, Milad posted a video of himself on IGTV urging his international audience to express solidarity with the protestors. “I am sincerely asking you all to share whatever post you see or come across,” he said, addressing the camera with tears in his eyes, “because it is very hard for us [Iranians] to do this on our own.”
To post or not to post
Milad and Roya, who follow each other on Instagram, are becoming acutely aware of the influence that a global platform like Instagram can have. “The dynamics are definitely shifting a bit because people now realize that they can use their voices and their accounts for a good cause,” said Roya.
In Iran, however, doing so comes with a risk of arrest and imprisonment. “Even if you repost or share something about the protest, you can get in trouble for that if the police come across your page,” said Roya. “But you gotta do what you have to do to support your people and share their voices.”
While murmurs of an Instagram ban have been around since its arrival in Iran, they’ve taken on a decidedly more serious tone in the last few months. In June, Mohamed Qomi, chairman of the Islamic Development Organization, launched a tirade in the new hard-line parliament against the social media platform, claiming that it was the source of immorality and a third of the country’s cyber-crime. But shutting down the country’s last open social media network, popular with Iranians of all stripes, could spur the kind of backlash the authorities seek to avoid.
For users like Roya, talks of a ban aren’t cause for concern. “Even if it does get banned, no problem. We have VPNs for Twitter, Facebook, everything else. We’ll just use them for Instagram too.”
But not everyone is as cavalier as Roya. The increased threat of arrest is giving pause to Iranian Instagrammers who once saw the platform as a safe space to post freely.
Vania, a 17-year-old aspiring violinist who created her Instagram account to post videos of her music, saw that her friends were becoming careful of their online activity in the wake of the crackdowns. “One of my friends sings [on Instagram], and she was so worried, she did an encrypted location of another country in the caption so that they wouldn’t think she was Iranian,” Vania told Rest of World. It’s illegal for women to publicly sing in Iran, unless they perform to female-only audiences.
Sahba, an Iranian artist based in Canada, said she has second thoughts before posting to Instagram, even from her home in Vancouver. “I wasn’t really worried until the November protests, when I saw how people were arrested on the streets because of their social media posts,” Sahba said. “I try not to censor myself politically, but it’s something that’s always going to be in my head.”
Roya hopes that her relatively low follower count will protect her from serious trouble, but she still receives direct messages on her account from odd profiles every now and then. “I’ve come across suspicious people DMing me about my content, but I just block them or ignore them, even though I know there is a chance that I’ll get reported.” Most of these DMs, she said, come from “nasty old men.”
Next year, Roya will graduate from high school. Her dream had been to study fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York, but tense U.S.-Iran relations and the faltering Iranian currency have put that dream out of reach for now. (She’s considering studying in Europe instead.) Until she leaves Iran, Roya said she plans to self-censor her content on Instagram to keep out of any trouble.
“Everyone has modesty police inside of them,” she said. “We choose not to share things that we are doing. The parties, the stuff we do at parties, things that are normal for Western kids to post all over. Even the most open-minded people in Tehran don’t post these things because of this silent rule that we all follow.”