Iran has shut down the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp in an effort to curb a growing protest movement that relies on social media to document dissent.
The protests, sparked on September 16 after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody, show no signs of weakening. On Thursday, protesters set fire to police stations and vehicles in several cities.
This comes as anti-regime demonstrations pour into cyberspace, with videos of women burning their hijabs going viral. Other women have posted emotional videos where they cut their hair in protest under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.
Mahsa Amini was arrested on September 16 for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “inappropriate” manner. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, received a fatal blow to the head, a claim denied by officials, who have announced an investigation. Police continue to maintain that she died of natural causes, but her family suspect she was beaten and tortured.
Iranian state media reported that street rallies had spread to 15 cities on Wednesday, with police using tear gas and making arrests to disperse crowds of up to 1,000 people.
In southern Iran, video footage supposedly from Wednesday showed protesters setting fire to a giant photograph on the side of a building belonging to General Qassem Soleimani, the respected commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, who was killed in a 2020 US attack in Iraq.
Protesters threw rocks at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and bins and chanted anti-government slogans, Irna’s official news agency said.
On Thursday, Iranian media said three militiamen “mobilized to deal with the rioters” were stabbed or shot dead in the northwestern city of Tabriz, the central city of Qazvin and Mashhad in the northeast of the country.
A fourth member of the security forces has been killed in the southern city of Shiraz, Iranian news agencies reported, adding that a protester in Qazvin has been stabbed to death, in addition to six deaths of protesters already announced by officials.
Iranian authorities have denied any involvement in the deaths of protesters.
Amnesty International said it has registered the deaths of eight people – six men, a woman and a child – four of whom were shot at close range by security forces with metal bullets.
The protests are among the most serious in Iran since November 2019 turmoil over fuel price increases.
“Shutting down the internet should be seen as an extension of the violence and repression that takes place in physical space,” said Azadeh Akbari, a cybersurveillance researcher at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands. “Social media is essential for the mobilization of protesters, not only to coordinate rallies, but also to amplify acts of resistance.
“You see a woman without a headscarf standing in front of the anti-insurgency police, which is very brave. When a video of this comes out, suddenly it’s not one person doing this anymore, women in all different cities are doing the same.”
“Women, life, freedom”, the words heard at Amini’s funeral, have been echoed by protesters across the country, including in a video of young women burning their hijabs while male protesters fight against security forces. The video has been viewed more than 30,000 times on Twitter.
In another video an Iranian woman sings a hymn to fallen youth while cutting her hair with household scissorswhich has over 60,000 views.
“[The videos] are one hundred percent valuable,” a young Twitter user from Iran told The Guardian, adding that while the protests hadn’t reached her hometown, she could have taken part in opposition activities online. “I am saddened that my compatriots in other parts of Iran have taken to the streets and are fighting against this regime for all our rights. And I can do nothing but share information online.”
She added that videos of police brutality against protesters motivated people in several cities to take action.
“It is very difficult for the regime to control the videos that come out. Many people do not post them on social media, but circulate them in WhatsApp groups, etc. The demonstrations are taking place simultaneously in cyberspace and in physical space.”
Social media has long been one of the main tools for anti-regime activity, as public spaces are closely guarded by security forces. “Platforms like Instagram became the virtual street where we can gather to protest, because in real life it was not possible to do that,” said Shaghayegh Norouzi, an Iranian campaigner against gender-based violence who has lived in exile in Spain.
Norouzi said that while she had been able to keep in touch with activists in Tehran, she feared future internet outages and what they could mean for activists’ safety.
“During the latest protests [2017-2019], the government has shut down the internet for days. During that time, protesters were killed and arrested,” she said. “Protesters also use the internet to organize themselves. They can call each other and tell each other when they are in danger or warn each other.”
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps called on the judiciary to prosecute “those who spread false news and rumours” in a statement released Thursday.
Amini’s death came amid a government crackdown on women’s rights. On August 15, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi signed a decree that, among other measures, increased the penalty for women who post anti-hijab content online.
While the government focuses on women’s rights, Akbari says the government is tightening its cyber regime. She fears continued internet outages could be used to allow an expansion of Iran’s national internet, which is cut off from the rest of the world.
“This is a very dangerous plan, which would see the regime cut off Iran completely from the global internet in the near future,” she said. “This would enable the regime to control cyberspace, along with the surveillance of physical space, and develop a ubiquitous control machine.”