Technology

Instagram Under Fire for Censoring Iran Protest Footage (Again)

May 18, 2022
Hannah Somerville
3 min read
Scores of stills and video clips showing street protests in Iran have been removed from social media in the past week
Scores of stills and video clips showing street protests in Iran have been removed from social media in the past week

Mass anti-government protests gathered pace in cities across Iran last night, as did the lethal security crackdown, as Instagram and Twitter faced a tide of criticism for removing posts documenting the unrest.

Huge crowds formed in the city of Golpayegan on Tuesday night, marking the first time a city in Isfahan province has joined the protests that broke out over the soaring cost of living on May 6. A large number of women were seen on the streets, joining chants of “Bullets, tanks, tear gas, mullahs get lost” and the ubiquitous "Death to the dictator".

The city of Junqan in Charmahal and Bakhtiari province was also described as being "under siege" from security forces last night amid an internet shutdown days after people in the city overran a local Basij base. At least one person, named Jamshid Mokhtari, was killed after being shot four times in the street.

On Wednesday morning it was widely reported that security forces had descended on Mokhtari's family home and taken his body away. This was a tactic deployed by the state in the November 2019 protests in a bid to extort survivors for money, or pro-regime public statements, or both.

Security forces also descended on the funeral of Pish Ali Hajivandi, another early victim of the crackdown in the village of Shulabad, Lorestan province on Tuesday. Other clips from the incident showed clashes between citizens and uniformed officers, and of an IRGC vehicle being shot at.

There were also unconfirmed reports last night of a young woman having been killed in Shahrekord, the capital of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, while protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the seminary and others were beaten and detained by riot police. On Wednesday a video was published that purported to show tanks rolling from Isfahan to Shahrekord.

The extent of the documented brutality over the last fortnight prompted Amnesty International to issue a statement on Tuesday calling on the Iranian authorities to monitor security forces and "prevent a recurrence of bloodshed". It added: "The international community, including members of the [United Nations] Human Rights Council, must press the authorities to end the pattern of repeated use of deadly weapons during protests, and to hold the authorities accountable."

 

Instagram Policies Hampering Documentation of Protests

All this also came amid a deepening furore over the censorship of scores of images and videos documenting the protests on social media. On Monday the NGO Iran Human Rights demanded that Instagram and Twitter specifically "facilitate information-sharing, instead of restricting the contents of the photos and videos shared by citizen journalists in Iran".

The bulk of complaints received in recent days relate to the removal of Persian-language Instagram posts that showed the reality of the protests on the ground, including crowds in the streets and confrontations with security forces.

One user whose account was temporarily frozen wrote: "Instagram deletes photos and videos of protests in Iran! Dear people of Iran, we are alone in this world."

Several well-known Iranian diaspora media outlets are understood to have been affected, including Iran International, as well as prominent anti-Islamic Republic accounts and the Twitter account 1500tasvir, which has been collating footage of the protests in different parts of Iran. The latter has reported access to their account being limited twice in the last 24 hours.

BBC Persian reports that since 2019, Facebook and Instagram complaints handling has been outsourced by the parent company, Meta, to a Germany-based company called Telus International. Two former and current employees told the BBC the firm had 400 to 500 Iranians on the books, some of whom exhibited pro-regime sympathies and had, in their view, not been adequately vetted for potential bias.

It remains unclear how many posts are reviewed by human beings or subject to an automated process. Mahsa Alimardani, an internet researcher working with the pro-freedom of expression campaign Article 19, told IranWire the main obstacle is Meta's in-house policies on what can and cannot be posted on its platforms, regardless of the context.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Article 19 had received reports of 40 separate Instagram takedowns via an online form, and had heard about tens being removed from individual accounts. More than 200 were similarly taken down last summer during protests over the water crisis in Khuzestan.

The main reason, Alimardani said, was "Facebook has some policies regarding protests and violence that are really problematic." Slogans like "Death to Khamenei", "Death to the dictator" and others are an instant red flag to moderators because they could be construed as promoting violence. The deletion of these posts, Alimardani said, "is actually following their policies to a T.

"We are in contact with Meta because we don't agree with these policies. The context in Iran is different. Protests are messy, and in videos where there are hundreds or thousands in a crowd, there's going to be a 'Death to the dictator'. It's not our job to censor protests and it's not Meta's job to censor protests."

For citizen journalists trying to cover events on the ground in the covering days, Alimardani recommended "editorializing" clips as much as possible in captions and title screens to make it clear the poster is not promoting the content, but merely reporting on it. They can also avoid sharing footage in which "Death to..." chants are heard. 

Ultimately, though, she said, "It's a bad policy. We in civil society, and human rights organisations, are saying it's not bad to have exceptions."

 

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Instagram Under Fire for Censoring Iran Protest Footage (Again)