Iran shut down the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp in an attempt to curb the growth of a protest movement that relied on social media to document dissent.
The protests that erupted on September 16 following the police killing of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman show no signs of abating. On Thursday, protesters set fire to police stations and cars in several cities.
This comes after anti-regime demonstrations spilled over into cyberspace and videos of women burning their hijabs went viral. Other women post emotional videos of themselves cut their hair in protest under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.
Mahsa Amini was detained on September 16 allegedly for “improperly” wearing a headscarf while wearing a hijab. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish name is Jina, was fatally shot in the head, a claim officials deny and have announced an investigation. Police continue to claim she died of natural causes, but her family suspects she was beaten and tortured.
Iranian state media reported that street protests had spread to 15 cities by Wednesday, with police firing tear gas and making arrests to disperse crowds of up to 1,000 people.
In southern Iran, footage purportedly taken on Wednesday showed protesters setting fire to a giant painting on the side of a building of General Qassem Soleimani, the respected Revolutionary Guard commander who was killed in a 2020 US strike in Iraq.
Demonstrators threw stones at security forces, set police cars and containers on fire and chanted anti-government slogans, the official IRNA news agency reported.
On Thursday, Iranian media reported that three militiamen “mobilized to fight rioters” were stabbed or shot dead in northwestern Tabriz, central Qazvin and northeastern Mashhad.
A fourth member of the security forces was killed in the southern city of Shiraz, Iranian news agencies said, adding that a protester was stabbed to death in Qazvin, adding to six protester deaths already announced by officials.
The Iranian authorities deny their involvement in the deaths of the protesters.
Amnesty International said it had recorded the deaths of eight people – six men, one woman and a child – four of whom were killed by security forces at close range with metal pellets.
The protests are among the most serious in Iran since unrest since November 2019 over rising fuel prices.
“Internet shutdowns should be understood as an extension of the violence and repression that takes place in the physical space,” said Azadeh Akbari, a cyber surveillance researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “Social networks are necessary to mobilize protesters not only to coordinate meetings, but also to strengthen acts of resistance.
“You see a woman standing without a hijab in front of the counter-insurgency police, and that’s very courageous. When a video of it comes out, suddenly it’s not just one person doing it, women in all different cities doing the same thing.”
“Women, life, freedom,” the words heard at Amini’s funeral, were echoed by protesters across the country, including in video showing young women burning their hijabs while male protesters battle security forces. The video has received more than 30 thousand views on Twitter.
In another video, an Iranian woman sings a hymn to fallen youth as she cuts her hair with household scissorswhich has garnered over 60,000 views.
“[The videos] one hundred percent precious,” one young Iranian Twitter user told the Guardian, adding that although the protests did not reach her hometown, she was able to participate in opposition activities online. “I am saddened that my compatriots in other parts of Iran have taken to the streets and are fighting against this regime for all our rights. And I can’t do anything but share information on the Internet.”
She added that videos showing police brutality against protesters are motivating people in different cities to take action.
“It is very difficult for the regime to control the video output. A lot of people don’t post them on social media, they share them on WhatsApp groups, etc. Demonstrations happen simultaneously in cyberspace and in physical space.”
Social media has long been one of the key tools of anti-regime activity, as public spaces are closely monitored by security forces. “Platforms like Instagram have become a virtual street where we can gather to protest because it was impossible to do in real life,” said Shagai Narouzi, an Iranian campaigner against gender-based violence living in exile in Spain.
Narouzi said that while she has managed to stay in touch with activists in Tehran, she fears future internet blackouts and what that could mean for activists’ safety.
“During the last protests [2017-2019], the government shut down the Internet for several days. During this time, protesters were killed and arrested,” she said. “Protesters also use the Internet for self-organization. They can call each other and tell when they are in danger or warn each other.”
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, in a statement released Thursday, called on the judiciary to prosecute “those who spread false news and rumours.”
Amini’s death and arrest came amid a government crackdown on women’s rights. On August 15, the cruel president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisisigned a decree that, among other measures, increased penalties for women who post anti-hijab content online.
Along with women’s rights, Akbari says the government is tightening its cyber regime. She fears that prolonged internet outages could be used to expand Iran’s national internet, which is cut off from the rest of the world.
“This is a very dangerous plan that will allow the regime to completely cut off Iran from the global internet in the near future,” she said. “This would allow the regime to control cyberspace alongside policing physical space and develop an all-pervasive surveillance machine.”