Iran: Confusion and misinformation over social media take-downs fuels online harassment

In recent weeks, the accounts of a number of Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders were blocked on the social media platform Instagram.  This action followed the recent designation by the US government of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a ‘terrorist organisation’.

Shortly after these takedowns occurred, ARTICLE 19’s Programme Officer and expert on digital rights in Iran, Mahsa Alimardani, was interviewed by BBC Persian.  During the interview she expressed concerns at Facebook’s processes and a demand for greater clarity on the application of governments requirements on terrorist designations. In so doing she explained ARTICLE 19’s broader commitment to highlight and recognize the many human rights violations of the Iranian state, often at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards.

ARTICLE 19 has previously raised concerns about Instagram’s parent company Facebook’s transparency regarding content takedowns and blocking of accounts.

In this case, the company blocked the accounts of the Supreme Leader, and the head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, for a brief period, apparently on the basis of the designation of the IRGC by the US.  However, the accounts were later reinstated.

While we note the company’s legal obligation in the US to comply with the government policy on terrorism, we call on Instagram and its parent company Facebook to urgently improve the clarity with which they allow take downs, explicitly respond to government requests, and apply designation lists.  The US State Department’s list of terrorist organisations, often includes groups not deemed to be terrorist organisations by the UN.

Confusion has also been fuelled by the fact that Alimardani’s comments to the BBC regarding the ARTICLE 19 position was spun by social media accounts (known to sensationalize issues), into a defence of the Guards and of terrorists which included a viral video strategically cut to remove our stated position on the IRGC.

Since then, Ms Alimardani has been subject to a barrage of online abuse, including a series of aggressive gender-based threats and harassment posted publicly or sent privately which continued for more than a week following her interview.

ARTICLE 19 unreservedly condems the gross violations of freedom of expression other human rights committed by the Iranian regime and the IRGC.  We advocate for an end to attacks on freedom of expression online in Iran.  However, it remains a significant concern of ours to see a social media platform issuing blanket bans, even against regime actors, with inadequate clarity around its decision making.

While we remain extremely concerned at the harassment of one of our staff, simply as a result of expressing a position based on rights and due process, we are also concerned for all those who experience such attacks.  Aggressive, manipulative campaigns such as the one endured by Ms Alimardani, are designed to stifle voices, and use gender-based threats against women in particular.   We condemn these coordinated attacks, and urge social media platforms to take action to tackle online harassment and abuse, particularly of women.