Using social media, Iranians fight for a better future

Students gathering in protest (© AP Images)
University students hold mobile phones while protesting in Iran. (© AP Images)

Online communities often drive progress around the world, including in Iran.

Internet-dependent social media and widespread use of messaging apps spur discussion, debate and sometimes grass-roots protest movements. Recently, Iranians took to the streets calling for an end to corruption and for better economic opportunities.

After the first several days of protests, however, Iranians found that Iran’s telecommunications ministry had blocked popular messaging and social media apps.

“The Iranian regime is cutting off internet access in an attempt to shut down communication among the protesters,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at a January 5 emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. “They are attempting to silence the voice of the Iranian people. We cannot allow that to happen.”

The suppression of this form of free speech is increasingly harmful. In 2009, the last time nationwide protests swept Iran, only 15 percent of Iranians had access to the internet. Today, more than half do. And in a country of 80 million people, 48 million have smartphones.

“Social media is a legitimate form of communications,” said Steve Goldstein, an official with the U.S. Department of State, in encouraging the government of Iran to keep social media sites open.

‘White Wednesdays’ inspire

One particular image that spread through social media has animated the aspirations of everyday Iranians. Whether depicted as a photo, video or illustration, it features an Iranian woman in the middle of a busy street, waving her scarf. To many, she has become the face of the ongoing protests, which started outside of Iran’s capital. (See sidebar for many pre-internet images that have come to symbolize social movements in U.S. history.)

The Iranian woman was actually filmed before the recent protests in Iran and was participating in the White Wednesday movement, in which women wear white to protest their lack of choice about whether to cover their heads in public.

This social media post encourages women to go without headscarves every Wednesday.  The comment indicates that the woman in the photo is unknown, but courageous.

نوشين زرگري در فيسبوكش چه زيبا نوشته: «دختری در انقلاب» عکس این دختر را که دیروز در اعتراض به حجاب اجباری در خیابان انقلاب، روسری اش را برداشت، بارها نگاه کردم، در پوشش ساده و محکم اش دقت کردم، در خونسردی عمیقش دقیق شدم، در جوانی بی بدیلش غرق شدم. کار این دخترک سمبلیک نیست، او حتا مانتو نپوشیده است. برای وقارش، برای جسارت اش از گذشتن از مرزها، برای شجاعت اش، برای به جان خریدن خطر حتا اگر بازداشتی دو ساعته باشد، قلبم از فرسخ ها فاصله برایش تپید. جوری ایستاده گویی مجسمه ی آزادی ست بر فراز ترس ها، سرخوردگی ها و نداشتن ها، طوری ایستاده که گویی حقش را یکبار و برای همیشه در چنین سکوت محشری در مشت گرفته. او را ندیده ام، او را نمی شناسم، اما حتم دارم تصویرش بعنوان اولین زنی که با سکوت این چنین حرف زد و آن زائده ی اجباری و بی معنی را در هوا تکان داد، در حافظه و قلب ما ثبت خواهد شد، دختری که با کتانی سفید، برای دقایقی به اندازه ی قرن ها حرف زد، دختر جان، تو به اندازه ی همه ی ترس های ما نترسیدی و بی ادعا و بی اعتنا به نگاه های گنگ پایین پای ات در جایی ایستادی که ما هرگز نایستادیم، نامت را نمی دانیم اما جسم و روح بدون همراه و تنهایت را در این جمعیت میلیونی با این نام به خاطر خواهیم سپرد: «دختری در انقلاب». فيلم هاي تان را لطفا به اين شماره تلگرام بفرستيد 0017184064505 آي دي تلگرام: @masihvoice #چهارشنبه_های_سفید #چهارشنبه_های_بدون_اجبار #whitewednesdays

A post shared by Masih Alinejad (@masih.alinejad) on

Keeping communication alive

Millions of Iranians are finding ways to get around the government’s efforts to block access to the internet, the outside world and each other. Some use anonymous browsers and virtual private networks, or VPNs, which enable citizens to evade geographical restrictions or filters on internet access.

Throughout 2017, more than 4 million Iranians relied on anti-censorship tools provided by the U.S. State Department. As the State Department’s Heather Nauert said January 2, “When a nation clamps down on social media, we ask the question, ‘What are you afraid of?’”

Images propel change

Even before the internet, emotional images shaped social movements in the United States.

Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photo of a 32-year-old mother of seven symbolized the suffering during the Depression and encouraged Americans to do more to help the poor.

Mother with children (Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

The 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, propelled the civil rights agenda.

Martin Luther King Jr. waving to large crowd, Washington Monument in background (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

A protester placing flowers in soldiers’ rifles represented nonviolent resistance to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Soldiers holding rifles, man putting flowers in their barrels (© Bernie Boston/Washington Post via Getty Images)
(© Bernie Boston/Washington Post via Getty Images)

The poise of a woman arrested in a 2016 protest against police brutality in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, made her image go viral on the internet and bolstered the Black Lives Matter movement.

Woman in dress facing armored police (© Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)
(© Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)