In a recent publication, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported the economic effects resulting from Iran’s ban on the messaging app Telegram last April. Reportedly, the regime had been toying with the idea ever since anti-government protests erupted in the country in January. The app reportedly played a large role in organizing protests, and helped activists communicate with one another.
First, it’s important to put this event context. Telegram has an estimated 40 million users in the country. That means half the population of the Islamic Republic had the app installed, a segment that almost certainly included the entire young adult to middle age demographic. The equivalent would be the U.S. Senate banning the use of WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype all at the same time.
While Iranian’s have certainly integrated modern technology into their society, the way the economy operates is still by Western standards highly informal. Due to its popularity, Telegram became a major part of the very infrastructure of the Iranian system. Companies advertised services through the app. Banks sent notifications to their account holders. Government offices even used the app to transfer important documents and reports. “Businesses small and big were using it as a way to communicate, advertise, and actually do deals,” said CHRI director Hadi Ghaemi.
Because statistics and other forms of data on Iran’s economy are harder to come by, it is difficult to put numbers to the ban’s impact. Creatively, CHRI went directly to the people in order to assess its effects. One interview was with a 36-year-old given the name “Zahra” in the report, who works for a private medical training company. According to Zarah, the firm used the application to organize classes training 4,000 doctors in Iran, as many doctors were unable for various reasons to gain regular access to the internet through PCs or laptops. One government employee identified as “Ahmed” explained that Telegram had completely replaced email as a form of communication between offices. Allegedly, the app was used to send everything from “files, reports, and letters” to “office communications.”
In an interesting turn of events, the CHRI report was released shortly before the recent anti-government protests erupted in Tehran. These demonstrations have been the largest Iran has seen in the past six years.
The most recent wave of protests, triggered primarily by the country’s deteriorating financial situation, was caught by social media users. The bravery of activists, as well as hardline response of the government, has been exposed to the world.
Iranian officials have been attempting to play down both the economic situation as well as the collective strength of demonstrators. The wave of information the world is witnessing on social media concerning Iran shows how the government is going to find itself in a tight spot. It will become increasingly difficult for the rulers to lie to the population. Social media use in Iran has only risen since the April ban, meaning Iranians will be informed regardless of what the government chooses to tell them.
Social media will likely become more and more of a strong symbol and rallying point for anti-regime activities. With the government facing a lack of success with the bans, while at the same time triggering unwanted effects on the country’s already suffering economy, it remains anyone's guess how extreme the Mullahs’ next move will be.