Protests in Iran: Government uses internet ‘kill-switch’ as ​​tech-savvy youngsters continue to evade digital censorship | world news

How dangerous can a seven-second video be?

Short clips like this showing protests in Iran have been widely shared online since the death of a young woman a month ago sparked civil unrest across the country.

Mahsa Amini‘s name in both English and Persian has become the most used hashtag in the world over the past six months, according to exclusive data shared with Sky News.

The insights these viral posts give into Iran have been deemed so damaging that the country’s government has developed a “kill-switch” to cut off internet access on a more sophisticated level than before.

Internet monitor Netblocks told Sky News that Iran was able to cut regions and platforms faster and with greater precision. Iran has mainly implemented a nationwide daily internet curfew with some additional restrictions.

Previously, it took more than 24 hours for Iran to impose a nationwide news blackout during the 2019 protests.

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This breakthrough allows Iran to focus more on where and what it is targeting with its controls, meaning digital infrastructure needed elsewhere can stay online and economic costs are minimized.

“While Iran’s capability has been described in the past as a ‘kill-switch’, this is the first time we have witnessed such a coordinated disruption of online connectivity and resources on a large scale,” NetBlocks founder Alp Toker told Sky News.

Launched in 2017, NetBlocks monitors online governance, internet freedom and cybersecurity.

Freedom House ranks Iran among the worst countries in the world for internet freedom, and almost all social media platforms are effectively blocked there.

NetBlock research shows that Iran has regularly imposed an internet curfew during protests and has also restricted two social media apps that are generally accessible, Instagram and WhatsApp.

By disrupting millions of people’s access to Instagram and the wider web, Iran has tried to isolate the country from the rest of the world while trying to bring the protests under control.

But young, tech-savvy protesters have exploited cracks in the regime’s barrier to release hundreds of films, just like the seven-second video.

Sky News has been monitoring the clips since the protests began. Many videos are short. This makes them easier to send to Iranians abroad who can share positions beyond the reach of Iranian controls.

Image:
There have been four weeks of protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, pictured

The hashtag refers to Mahsa Amini, the young woman whose death sparked the civil disobedience that still sweeps Iran. The 22-year-old was killed after being detained by officials who claimed she was wearing her hijab (head covering) “inappropriately”.

Exclusive data from TalkWalker, a social analytics firm, reveals that #MahsaAmini has been posted 65.1 million times on the internet since her death in mid-September. His name in Persian, #مهسا_امینی, has been posted 305.5 million times.

The protests in Iran have gone truly global, with #MahsaAmini having been posted a million times in the UK alone since his death.

TalkWalker data also shows that 93% of those who post on #MahsaAmini and #مهسا_امینی globally and in Iran alone are between the ages of 18 and 34.

This shows that not only are the protests on the ground being led by young people, but that this same demographic is waging a war against the regime online.

Iran’s young online army is potentially large. Some 48 million people out of Iran’s 85 million people are on social media. Many of those online are young – 60% of the country’s population is under 30.

A young woman films during a protest in Iran in early October
Image:
A young woman films during a protest in Iran in early October

Mona Tajali, author and associate professor of international relations and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Agnes Scott College, told Sky News that while Iranian women have continuously protested since the 1979 revolution, this younger generation is “smarter” with social media.

“The reason we have #MahsaAmini everywhere is that it started with a journalist [Niloufar Hamedi]… She went to the hospital, took pictures of herself and posted it on social media after her death. This is all well intentioned. This did not happen by chance,” she explains.

Dr Babak Rahimi, an academic who co-edited a book on social media in Iran, warns that this tactic is risky.

“It’s extremely difficult. As soon as you post something about an event happening on social media, the government sees it too.

“Their social media monitoring has become increasingly sophisticated since [the civil unrest in] 2009.”

The protests were heavily guarded, with protesters being beaten in the street and detained. At least 144 men, women and children were killed by Iranian security forces between September 19 and October 3, according to human rights group Amnesty International.

Images shared online are often blurry or show the back of people's heads, like in this screenshot from a video of schoolgirls protesting
Image:
Images shared online are often blurry or show the back of people’s heads, like in this screenshot from a video of schoolgirls protesting

Those who film and upload videos are aware of the dangers. The majority of videos seen by Sky News are heavily blurred to hide people’s faces or people are deliberately filmed from behind.

There is little access to other digital tools used by journalists. Street-level views available on Google Maps and Mapillary, which are used to help confirm locations, are underpopulated in Iran.

The areas highlighted in blue and green below indicate where Street View is possible. When the map is unmarked, it means there is no street view.

Iran has only a handful of blue highlights (meaning where street shots are) compared to lands in Europe and elsewhere.  Photo: Google Maps
Image:
Iran has only a handful of blue highlights (meaning where street shots are) compared to lands in Europe and elsewhere. Photo: Google Maps
Iran has poor coverage compared to other areas on Mapillary, another site where street photography can be searched.  Photo: Mapillary
Image:
Iran has less coverage than other areas on Mapillary, another site where street photography can be searched. Photo: Mapillary

Despite these limitations, many videos are verifiable and give us information.

In the seven-second video, the filmmaker appears to be one of the young women who make up this crowd of protesters next to the distinctive building of Shiraz University in southern Iran.

The distinctive shape of Shiraz University's Eram campus can be seen in the video and confirmed on Google Earth (inset)
Image:
The distinctive shape of Shiraz University’s Eram campus can be seen in the video and confirmed on Google Earth (inset)

Scarves are waved in the air, women cheer and shout loudly, while others hold up homemade signs.

A woman close to our videographer is also recording. As she lifts her phone in its bright yellow case into the air, we see the frames of her sunglasses glistening in the sunlight.

Filming woman hides her face behind sunglasses and face mask
Image:
Filming woman hides her face behind sunglasses and face mask

The glasses serve the same purpose as his COVID-19 mask: they are not worn to protect his health, but to protect his identity.

She’s not alone in this – a number of women in the crowd took steps to hide their faces.

Face masks and goggles have become a key way for protesters to hide their identities
Image:
Face masks and goggles have become a key way for protesters to hide their identities

These women and the Iranian people as a whole know what they are doing is dangerous, but they are willing to take the risk – both on the streets and online.

Azadeh Pourzand, a human rights researcher at SOAS University of London, says Mahsa Amini’s death has affected many people in Iran.

She says that the morality police, who first arrested Amini, arrested a large number of young women.

“It was so easy to identify with an average Iranian woman. You didn’t have to be an activist. You didn’t have to be a dissident. All you needed was an Iranian woman,” she says.

“That’s what triggered it, but people lost patience.

“They want to see change in their lives.

“Women are at the center, but it’s not just by women for women. It is also by women and people for political change.”


Additional reporting by Kieran Devine, digital investigative reporter

The Data and forensics The team is a versatile unit dedicated to delivering transparent Sky News journalism. We collect, analyze and visualize data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite imagery, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling, we aim to better explain the world while showing how our journalism is done.

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