Iranwire – The golden age of Clubhouse in Iran already seems to be behind us. Use of the video messaging app boomed in the run-up to the 13th presidential election this summer; at that time, Iranian chatrooms on Clubhouse were often filled to capacity with voices young and old discussing the country’s future.
The filtering of Clubhouse was intermittently discussed by officials, but at first not visibly enacted. Over time, though, the number of rooms hosting political content has decreased. Part of this is due to the normal ebb and flow of interest in such topics – but it was also part-engineered by the Islamic Republic, with the Ministry of Intelligence now bearing down on the organizers of “subversive” rooms.
IranWire spoke to two seasoned internet activists about what we know about the app’s vertiginous rise and fall in Iran so far.
An untold number of criminal cases filed with the Iranian judiciary over the past 10 years have been linked to social media activity. The regime had long sought to stifle bloggers and digital media outlets, but from the late 2000s, users of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more recently Instagram and Telegram also found themselves under fire.
Ahead of the June 2021 presidential election, the Islamic Republic appeared to have adopted a more permissive stance toward Clubhouse: a relatively new app that was difficult to filter, and where officials and even ministers occasionally were allowed to talk to citizens. But in the aftermath of the vote, this trend gradually subsided, and the summonses began.
Nejat Bahrami, a political activist and journalist in exile, gave IranWire’s sister website Journalism is Not a Crime his take on the fate of Persian-language Clubhouse. “The start of Clubhouse in Iran coincided with the elections,” he said, “so the government tried to create excitement and propaganda in a bid to boost turnout.”
But, he said, this pre-election publicity drive – like others before it – was both temporary and controlled from the get-go. “Controlled in the sense that rooms were being set up by regime insiders, and managed by ideologically-aligned forces. The same people were also present in the rooms set up by groups opposed to the Islamic Republic. An attempt was made to control cyberspace, in a jihadist-revolutionary way. It didn’t work.”
Clubhouse ‘Mirror Rooms’ Set Up by the ‘Cyber Army’
Iranian social media accounts, either real or automated, whose online activity is almost or exclusively limited to promoting the Islamic Republic, have come to be known online as the regime’s “cyber army”. Their posts typically intensify in times of national crisis or upheaval. To this end, several regular Clubhouse rooms were set up ahead of the June election. Members of the cyber army involved in setting up these rooms are reported to have received hundreds of millions of tomans.
In the pre-election period a number of senior figures in the Islamic Republic, most notably Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Communications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, made appearances on Clubhouse to talk to would-be voters. This, too, was in line with state policy at the time.
Media activist Hossein Razagh told Journalism is Not a Crime that in his view, Clubhouse users before the election could be divided into three broad factions. “One group operated freely, from outside Iran. Then there were two broad groups inside the country: the ‘concerned’ people, who enjoyed no [government] support, and pro-regime groups who have been, and still are, partly operating behind the scenes, whose leaders were generally supported by people like Azari-Jahromi and Zarif.”
Razagh has observed pro-regime social media accounts posting on Twitter and Telegram in a co-ordinated manner – functioning, as he put it, as a “news distribution team”. One of their main activities is to dilute the messages of opponents by promoting “parallel” information streams. This, he said, extended to setting up Clubhouse rooms.
“For example,” he said, “if a room was held in [veteran reformist Mostafa] Tajzadeh’s presence, they would quickly set up a parallel room against it. If Mir Hossein Mousavi issued a statement and it was discussed in one room, another room would be created by these people with the aim of defaming Mousavi. There were many cases of such actions by these people.”
They want to bring people to the streets!
Last weekend the Ministry of Intelligence contacted Hossein Sarbandi, a former administrator of several Clubhouse rooms including two prominent ones called Green Mondays and Iran Concerns. The activist was reportedly threatened on the phone with arrest and prosecution if he did not abandon the platform.
Sarbandi was also questioned over having set up a third room with Saeed Shahsavandi, an ex-member of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK), in which some users had criticized Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. According to BBC Persian, he was also told by interrogators that his work was a “project” seeking to “take people to the streets”. They also accused Sarbandi of setting up a room attended by a group of Iranian teachers. Shortly afterward, they said, the teachers had held a protest.
Hossein Razagh said: “Recently in Clubhouse rooms, ‘the streets’ have been proposed as a solution. But not by the managers of the rooms: by the guests. The pro-government groups even set up a room to counteract this one [the teachers’ group] immediately after those comments were made by the attendees.”
Much of the so-called cyber army’s activities on Clubhouse appear to be an exercise in damage control. Where this has failed, the security agencies have stepped in. “The summonses began gradually after the election and the drop in activity on Clubhouse,” Razagh said. “They were generally threatening and conducted by phone.
“The process gathered pace in such a way that as soon as any room was formed that criticized Hassan Rouhani or his ministers, the Ministry of Intelligence summoned the managers. This was also true of rooms created in the presence of people like [activists] Taghi Rahmani and Narges Mohammadi, or those on the topic of the 1980s executions, or similar. New intelligence cases were opened just for the room managers, and these cases are still on the table under the new administration.”
A Shift in Responsibilities?
The Islamic Republic does not publish any meaningful figures or information on the extent of security agencies’ and law enforcement bodies’ efforts to control cyberspace. Even in the annual budget, such activities are obscured. Previously, the IRGC was known to be heavily involved in dealing with government-critical social media users, while the Intelligence Ministry’s footprint was less noticeable. But under Ebrahim Raisi – with the executive branch and security services now ideologically aligned – this apparent status quo could be changing.
“The alignment of the government with the hard core of power allows the IRGC to confidently hand over many of these missions to the Intelligence Ministry,” Nejat Bahrami said. “In other words, the recent summonses are a kind of cooperative maneuver between the two institutions.”
With regard to the approach of Hassan Rouhani’s government, he added: “There’s no doubt that the position of Azari-Jahromi and others differed to that of the new government. Reformists today pursue votes from a section of society with stronger ties to social media, even when their previous record shows no such thing. In times when the principlist faction was not as advanced as it is today, the reformists were tasked with censorship. Now that they have to recruit through social media, we see their [stated] opposition to widespread filtering.
“The government isn’t currently afraid of reformists. In the recent election the reformists acquired three percent of the vote, in the absence of those who boycotted. But they are still afraid of the reformists sitting around in Clubhouse rooms. They see this as both a nuisance, and as a danger they’ll have to deal with.”