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Geopolitics

Is Elon Watching? How Chaos At Twitter Could Impact Iranian Protesters

Two anonymous Iranian Twitter users spoke about their hopes that Iran's protests could hasten the end of the unpopular regime, and what Elon Musk's takeover of the the platform could mean for them.

Is Elon Watching? How Chaos At Twitter Could Impact Iranian Protesters

A screenshot from the anonymous Twitter account of Ajibzadeh ("Born Strange")

Twitter
Firoozeh Nordstrom

The world has been paying special attention to the scope and endurance of anti-state protests in Iran that erupted in September after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. A key to maintaining momentum and attention has been social media, with users and activists eager to stay in contact and communicate around what many in Iran hope will be the movement to end the 40-year Islamist reign.

Social media's role in resisting oppressive regimes dates back to the protests of the Arab Spring, and more than 10 years later, Twitter in particular (with the option to have an anonymous account) is being used again in Iran.

However, since Elon Musk's takeover of the platform, serious concerns have been raised about whether the platform will survive. Ciaran O’Connor, senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said in an interview that "If Twitter was to ‘go in the morning’, let's say, all of this—all of the firsthand evidence of atrocities or potential war crimes, and all of this potential evidence—would simply disappear."


So what does this mean for Iranian users of the platform who are already facing an incredibly hostile environment? Kayhan-London talked to two anonymous Persian-language Twitter users, Ignoreshavandeh ("Being Ignored") and Ajibzadeh ("Born Strange"), about their views on the protests, and on Musk's Twitter.

Kayhan-London (KL): When and why did you start using Twitter?

Ajibzadeh: In 2016... with a view to freely expressing my opinions.

Ignoreshavandeh: Two years ago, but more seriously for the past seven or eight months... initially it was just normal, everyday tweets... but I joined the protests because of the savagery and unpatriotic conduct of state forces (in Iran)... I am one of the students who ... joined the boycott of classes and the university.

KL: How far do you think your Twitter activities help the movement opposed to the Islamic Republic?

Aj.: As I said... my aim (was) to freely express my views. In these years our knowledge of politics in Iran and the world has changed. When you think how politics and daily life have become entwined, every ordinary citizen can be a political actor. So writing about politics is a social obligation... all Twitter users become, with what they write, part of society's voice and represent society's view of politics... what's being shouted out in the streets today is what some (online) users have been saying for years. I don't want to exaggerate and attribute society's intelligence and perception to what we've been writing, but it shows at least that we have been following society's progressive line.

Ig.: We have three groups here. The first, people who are aware and awake, and both aiding the overthrow and working to spread awareness, the second group, people who are asleep, which is that grey sector of society that needs a spark to wake up, and the third group are people who insist on sleeping - which is mostly (government supporters).

KL: How can you identify which Twitter accounts are working for or against the regime?

Aj.: Most Twitter users are anonymous... so what is left is the content published in their writings. The main issue is not really to identify the users but to make their content ineffective. Identification is not easy. Of course unsafe, serial accounts have patterns that are easily identified, but you can't generalize about other accounts.

Ig.: Online accounts usually publish fake news, and many tweets are intended to frighten or wage psychological warfare. "Principled" accounts (arzeshi), which work on behalf of the Islamic Republic, mostly use the Islamic Republic's flag. They have specific hashtags and conceal (its) crimes.

Photo of woman with phone in her hand in Iran

Woman on her phone in Iran

Adam Jones

KL: What do you think of all the talk of regional separatism if the regime changed?

Aj.: The Islamic Republic has always tried with artificial divisions to leave people with a choice of bad and worse. Dealing with separatist groups is part of the Islamic Republic's propaganda doctrine, to keep a large section of patriotic Iranians quiet. I believe it's a typical plot thought up a century ago in Marxist think-tanks. In the recent protests, the revolt of the various peoples of different ethnicities has provoked a wave of solidarity, which is precisely the opposite of what state media have reported in the past two decades.

Ig.: This cannot happen. The rumors of (territorial) dismemberment were meant to divide people, just when all of Iran and the world are seeing a unity the Islamic Republic itself could never have dreamed of.

KL: How far do you think the regime is from the brink of downfall?

Aj.: I have faith in a process that is continuing and hope in the imminent end of the rule of Shia clerics over Iran. My view is that the regime is fragile, and will first become more fragile before it collapses. The Islamic Republic is sliding toward its fall, though certain factors could either delay, or hasten, that downfall.

Ig.: Considering the repression... and the increasing exhaustion... being noted (among police and security personnel)... (there is) a marked reduction in the numbers of repressive agents compared to the early days of the protests. That is a clear sign of dissolution. So with our revolutionary power, we are the victors of this struggle and revolution.

KL: Will new policies at Twitter following Elon Musk's takeover create problems for your accounts with pseudonyms?

Aj.: I really cannot say. But given the potential created in the world by anonymity on Twitter, new policies seem unlikely. Anonymous users freed from identity concerns are less cautious, and they speak plainly and share more information. So eliminating this possibility would damage this particular function of Twitter.

Ig.: Look, the whole world has become Iran's voice and its clamoring for freedom, so this seems unlikely. And if problems arise, they can be reversed again, because people want to be free.

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