RFL/RE – Meta Platforms has denied accusations by Iranian activists that its WhatsApp messaging platform has been working with the government to disrupt communications outside the country amid growing civil unrest over the death of a 22-year-old after she was arrested by morality police for failing to adhere to the country’s strict rules on wearing a hijab.
Tehran has restricted the popular messaging service inside Iran as the protests over the death of Mahsa Amini last week spread countrywide. State TV says as many as 26 people may have died so far in the unrest.
Late on September 22, some users reported that their access to WhatsApp accounts abroad had also been disrupted, accusing tech giant Meta of collaborating with the Iranian government.
Iranian right activist Hossein Ronaghi was one of those who raised the question of whether Meta, the owner of WhatsApp, was intentionally causing such a disruption.
The company quickly denied any tie between the disruption and its actions.
“We exist to connect the world privately. We stand with the rights of people to access private messaging. We are not blocking Iranian numbers. We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do anything within our technical capacity to keep our service up and running,” WhatsApp said in a post on Twitter after the accusations surfaced.
The demonstrations were sparked by an emotional outpouring over the death of Amini, who authorities say died of a heart attack while in custody for allegedly violating the strictly enforced dress code regarding the hijab. Activists say she was beaten by security forces.
They also come on top of months of unrest over rising prices and poor living conditions that many Iranians blame on the country’s leadership.
Despite the strong denial by Meta, some still questioned the company’s role in the disruption and demanded a technical explanation about the reason for the disruption in WhatsApp — and other Meta platforms such as Instagram — of Iranians abroad.
Anonymous, the international activist hacker group, accused Meta of censoring the protests in Iran on its Twitter account, “just like they did to Myanmar, Syria, Palestine.”
Manoto TV, a London-based Persian-language television station, accused Meta of deleting a large number of videos from its Instagram page that were related to the protests in Iran and which were shared by the station with its 10 million followers.
Many Iranian journalists and social media activists have reported previous incidents where they say Meta had also removed many of their posts related to anti-government protests and accused Instagram’s content-review subcontractor of blocking content related to the rise in anger against the authorities.
Bammad Esmaili, a German-based Iranian journalist, quoted several sources from the German branch of Telus International, a Canadian contractor that provides content moderation on Instagram, as saying that the Iranian government has offered financial rewards for the deletion of accounts opposing the Iranian government.
Esmaili did not provide any evidence. Meta has not commented on the accusations.