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Why Iran Is Banning Instagram

Once the social media holdout in the Islamic Republic, it looks like Instagram is going the way of Facebook and Twitter—used by public officials openly and everyone else in secret.
Image: Screenshot of President Rouhani's Instagram homepage.

Instagram has long enjoyed something of an outlier status in Iran, remaining legal while Facebook and Twitter have been banned since 2009. But it looks like that status has finally been rescinded—or it will be soon. An Iranian court ordered Iran's Ministry of Telecommunications to ban Instagram in the Islamic Republic, in response to a private lawsuit, according to both the AP and a state-affiliated news agency.

“Instagram was one of the last applications that was popular and hadn't been banned,” said Gissou Nia, executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. “Back in 2012 people visiting the country were writing about how many Iranians were on this photosharing app, and it was unclear why it hadn't come to the attention of the authorities.”


Given the Islamic Republic's well-documented aversion to citizens using social media, and Instagram's on-going success, the ban isn't terribly surprising. It will join the 150,000 sites blocked each month in Iran, and is, in some ways, a result of its own success.

“It just shows that as people migrate from Facebook to Instagram, that it's inevitably going to come more on the radar of the Iranian authorities,” Nia said. “As the medium is catching on more, you're going to see more attention on it.”

One testament to Instagram's rising popularity is the fact that both the Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei have Instagram accounts. Rouhani's mostly contains images of the president meeting with heads of state and visiting people in hospitals and generally looking grandfatherly and nice. Khomenei's has more military shots, fewer filters, but, in my opinion, stronger composition. The Ayatollah's account also seems to observe #ThrowbackThursday. The whole thing results in some cognitive dissonance.

“That's a testament to their personalities, I think, and the team they're surrounding themselves with,” Nia said. “The Supreme Leader at the end of the day is a really hardcore idealogue and he was there from the beginnings of the revolution. Rouhani is also a regime insider but he has a different style, a much softer style. So I'm not surprised.”

Their Instagram accounts are likely to stay up once the ban is put in place, just as the 2009 bans on other social media sites makes exceptions for leaders.

Image: Ayatollah Khomenei

The Instaban, though, is different than the 2009 ones in other ways. It apparently is coming in response to a private lawsuit, and arrives through a lower court, rather than through the “Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content,” which advocated blocking WhatsApp, due to its acquisition by the “American Zionist” Mark Zuckerberg. This may explain why, according the AP, people could still access (Zuckerberg's) Instagram from Tehran on Friday.

But it also highlights that Instagram is a different sort of social medium. Nia explained that Iranians use Facebook as a blogging platform for railing against the government. Instagram's text-light format doesn't easily lend itself to polemics, although one of the dancers who was arrested for appearing in a cheerful video set to Pharrell Williams's song 'Happy' took to Instagram to let the world know that she had been released.

Instead of fear of fomenting revolution, the theocratic government seems to fear the content of Instagram spreading “social ills,” Nia said. “They're very sensitive to images,” she said. “And you know what Instagram is like—the ones that have the most likes are women taking selfies with their boobs in the shot. So it's not really something that I think [Iran's government] would want.”

Of course the quickest way to make something innocuous into a political challenge is for the government to ban it. It took a British ban on collecting salt to make walking to the ocean and collecting your own an act of protest. It takes laws enforcing “public chastity” to turn a video of some good-looking people dancing to Pharrell into a proof of an oppressive regime.


Nia explained that Iran was an early adopter of the internet in the Middle East with the blessing of the government. “Initially conservatives and hardliners in the government saw this as a medium for spreading religious ideology and emphasize revolutionary principles," she said, "so they were fine with this technology, and were very supportive in the beginning.” Then, as the state began shuttering anti-regime print publications, anti-revolutionary writers found their voice online, which lead to the creation of the cyber police.

This pattern of the regime recognizing the potential of a new technology for self-promotion before recognizing its potential to subvert them seems to continue to this day.

If, like the UN and the IHRDC, you view the internet as a human right, then social media bans are about more than just denying people the Amaro filter. Instagram was just an app in Iran yesterday. If the ban goes forward as suggested, using it will become a transgressive act.

Unless you're the Ayatollah.