According to Fathollah Haghighi, Alborz Province’s Deputy Governor, 73 percent of Iranians subscribe to online messaging service Telegram and its channels. In autumn 2016, the High Council for Cyberspace announced that 24 million Iranians use Telegram. And, according to Telegram’s CEO Pavel Durov, the app has 40 million active users in Iran. Regardless of what the exact numbers are, Telegram offers an irresistible arena for election campaigning.
Telegram’s role in election campaigns took off in February 2016, following elections for Iran’s 10th Parliament and the 5th Assembly of Experts. In those elections, it was the reformists who mainly benefited from this social network and its outreach. To be sure, Iran’s conservative principlists put it to work for them as well. But since, unlike the reformists, they were mostly free from censorship in other media, Telegram was just another tool for them. Plus, again unlike reformists, the conservatives had a more unfettered access to state-run radio and television, so they did not consider Telegram to be a tool that could play a deciding factor in elections.
But now, the 2017 presidential election has given Telegram a significant boost, so much so that there is a healthy market buying and selling Telegram channels. At one point, the minister of communications and technology reported that the same people who issue “threats” against the internet were now busy acquiring channels with high numbers of members to use them for election campaigning.
In early May, the government’s official newspaper Iran reported that, besides buying Telegram channels, some individuals and groups have offered a lot of money — somewhere between $3,000 and more than $50,000 — to the administrators of popular channels in exchange for the publication of material favoring “one political faction,” implying the conservative principlists. In response to this, the website Mashregh News, reputedly affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, published a lengthy report claiming that Rouhani’s campaign has paid huge sums to the admins of dozens of Telegram channels. And prior to this, there were news reports about a meeting between some senior members of Rouhani’s campaign and the admins of Telegram channels.
According to Farid Esmaili, the admin of a website that initiates buying and selling of Telegram channels, buyers are looking for channels with more than 500,000 users or members. “Of course,” he says, “as demand for buying such channels has increased, the supply has dropped, because channels with more than 500,000 users prefer making money through ads rather than by selling them.”
Even so, many Telegram channels have been sold and turned into vehicles for the presidential campaigns. It is also rumored that when some admins refused to sell, they found that their channels had been blocked.
More than 100,000 Iranian Channels
In winter 2016, the Supreme Council for Cyberspace reported that there were more than 100,000 Iranian channels on Telegram, and that more than 1.2 million posts were published on these channels each day. According to the council, on average, each post gets around 500,000 per day. So it’s no wonder that many political figures, presidential candidates, candidates for local councils and political parties are trying to use Telegram for their campaigns.
But as Telegram has gained popularity among Iranians over the last two years, there has been an increasing backlash from Iran’s security agencies and the regime. In early April 2017, only six weeks before the presidential election, the Intelligence Unit of the Revolutionary Guards arrested at least 12 admins for Telegram channels. The Iranian judiciary — no friends of Rouhani or the reformists — issued them with charges. Ali Ahadnia and Ali-Heydar Valizadeh, admins of two reformist Telegram channels, were among those arrested.
Around the same time, Telegram added the voice communication capability to the app in Iran, but the judiciary blocked these Telegram voice calls. At that time, General Hossein Nejat, acting director of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, reported that he had warned Rouhani that if Telegram voice communication was allowed, it would make it much more difficult to control Telegram in general. Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s Prosecutor-General, said Telegram’s voice communication was blocked because it was “against national security.”
But Rouhani’s Intelligence Ministry has also played a role in the censorship of Telegram. The ministry arrested Telegram admins Alireza Tavakoli, Mohammad Mehdi Zamanzadeh and Mohammad Mohajer, who were then sentenced to combined prison sentences of 36 years. They were charged with “insulting the sacred,” and “gathering and collusion to act against national security” by “writing insulting material on the Telegram social network.”
Spurred on by Telegram’s key role during the 2016 dual elections and its effectiveness in mobilizing reformists and supporters, the judiciary demanded that Rouhani’s government block the service during the presidential election. In response, the minister of communication and technology repeatedly announced that the government and his ministry would not yield to pressures to filter Telegram.
Following this, President Rouhani also responded. In a press conference, he said: “On the day of the election, people will wake up and notice that both their mobiles and their internet is working.”
Election day is almost upon us, and Telegram users and admins for channels are hard at work, doing their best to add even more excitement to the campaign. In this effort, of course, Telegram is not the only tool at their disposal. Instagram, a serious rival to Telegram and extremely popular in Iran, has also been turned into a political battleground weapon.
Among the most active and well-known Telegram channels in Iran one is VahidOnline, which has close to 137,000 subscribers. It not only reports the news, but also republishes messages from Twitter, a service that has been blocked in Iran. There are many channels that support one or other political faction. For example, one channel called “Raeesi Is Here” has more than 51,000 subscribers. Yet, it appears that the moderates and reformists still have the edge, boasting far greater numbers of followers for their political messages platformed on Telegram.