More than one million bots have flooded the Instagram accounts of prominent Iranian feminist activists, in a coordinated harassment campaign that started mid-April, according to a new report released by Qurium, a digital forensics nonprofit. Almost all the activist accounts are connected to Iran’s #MeToo movement, which rose to the fore of the national conversation in March, after several accusations of sexual harassment and assault in the Iranian film industry made headlines. A number of the accounts have been posting content about sexual abuse allegations in the country over the past few months.
Account holders impacted by the campaign told Rest of World that the deluge of notifications from bots makes it incredibly challenging for them to see comments and DMs from their core audience, making it difficult to accept requests from genuine followers after the holders went private and to focus on their own political work and content. “There is someone who wants to silence you, and I can’t stop thinking about, Who can that be? Why are they here? What do they want to do? What are these bots?” Samaneh Savadi, a prominent Iranian gender equality activist based in the U.K, who has been active in the #MeToo movement, told Rest of World. “It’s that feeling of an invisible enemy. Someone wants to attack me, but I can’t see it; I can’t name and shame it, and therefore, I can’t have a strategy to defend myself.”
When Savadi tried to manually delete more than 400 follower requests at a time, Instagram temporarily disabled the function on her account, sending her a notification that read, “We limit how often you can do certain things on Instagram to protect our community.”
Instagram is the only major global social media platform that can currently be accessed from Iran without a VPN, making it difficult for activists to migrate their followings to other social media platforms. As a result, it has become a hub for dissidents and activists: a rare online venue for vocal criticism of the Iranian government.
On June 16, Qurium published a report outlining the scale of the harassment. It found 25 accounts that had seen engagement from over 1 million fake followers and traced the fake followers to at least two social media marketing firms in Pakistan that resell bots to boost like and follower accounts on Instagram. It is not clear who is purchasing the bots. Savadi’s account was one identified by Qurium as a target.
Tord Lundström, the technical director of Qurium, says that the bots continue to flood activist accounts with follower requests even after they go private, seemingly in an attempt to scare and intimidate the activists. “It sends the message that we know who you are, we know who you work with, and we want to make sure that all of you are attacked in the same way.”
Within 24 hours of the publication of the Qurium report, the number of bots targeting these activist accounts skyrocketed, with Qurium registering as many as 80,000 new follower requests per account per day. The deluge of fake follower requests may be an attempt to automatically flag the accounts, for a suspension or ban by Instagram, for violating the platform’s policies on buying fake followers.
In a joint statement published on June 29, a coalition of human rights organizations, including Article 19 and Access Now, called on Meta, Instagram’s parent company, to do more to protect these activists and remove the bot network from its platform. “The free expression of the Iranian MeToo movement must be protected and Meta must follow its own policies and get rid of these fake followers attacking and undermining the expression of these women human rights defenders,” said Article 19 Middle East and North Africa’s regional director Saloua Ghazouani.
Meta did not respond to Rest of World’s request for comment. Account holders involved in outreach to Meta earlier this month were told that Meta’s teams are investigating the issue, but they were not provided specific information about the actions being taken. According to an exchange reviewed by Rest of World, one Meta representative told account owners that gaining followers on Instagram was desirable, that it means people are interested in their content, and that it is not in violation of their rules. They also said it was difficult to distinguish between “good” and “bad” followers and that an investigation may take months, given the volume of activity.
Instagram is the platform of choice for many prominent Iranian #MeToo activists, including Katayoun Keshavarzi, a sociologist who is based in Sweden. Many activists on Instagram residing in Iran currently face security threats when speaking to the international press. For years, Keshavarzi has been regularly posting feminist political content on her account, in Farsi, with an estimated 90% of her following residing in Iran. In mid-April, she had 10,000 followers. Now she has over 500,000 and says almost all her new followers are bots, many seemingly coming from countries in South Asia.
Scraping the metadata of 45,000 of the bots on Keshavarzi’s account, as well as 25 other activists, Qurium traced their sale back to an “Indian-Pakistani Instagram follower package,” which sold accounts in batches that used stock imagery of South Asian people, Indian or Pakistani usernames, and famous English quotes in the account bios.
The packages were sold by two social media marketing firms called Promoting Guru and Dua Communication, both of which operate out of the Punjab province in Pakistan. Qurium also verified that the firms openly advertise their services, including selling followers and likes, on Facebook. Meta did not confirm whether Facebook had received digital advertising revenue from these ad placements.
Since Instagram currently stands as the only foreign social media platform accessible without a VPN in Iran, there are few opportunities for activists like Keshavarzi to migrate their following, should the harassment continue. “The only place we have to spread our message about human rights is social media and Instagram,” she said. “In Sweden, if your account was attacked and somehow suspended, then you can write an article in a newspaper or go on TV and talk about it. For us all, it is the only channel we have to teach ourselves, to teach other people, and to mobilize.”