Whether for news, entertainment, communication with family and friends, or even shopping, millions of Iranians opt for one source on a daily basis: the messaging application Telegram. People are even using the app to solicit money, suggests a report by Iran Newspaper.
According to a recent announcement by an Iranian government official, around 40 million Iranians -- meaning half of the country's population -- are users of the application, created in 2013 by two Russian brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov.
In a country where the regime used to have a monopoly on the flow of information, the relative freedom of the app represents a significant change. Ordinary citizens, activists, businessmen, entertainers, and others suddenly have a way to communicate freely with their fellow countrymen, a trend that could, in the eyes of the regime, have undesirable cultural, social, and political consequences.
In particular, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s conservatives, who control the major media in Iran including state radio and television, have been worried and are pressuring President Hassan Rouhani’s government to filter the application.
In a new round of criticism against the government's policies regarding social media last week, General Prosecutor Mohammad Javad Montazeri talked about the “destructive effect” of social media on Iranian society.
“Social media are like highways. We have opened them and have no control over them,” Motazeri said in an interview with conservative news website Tasnim. According to a Radio Farda report, his deputy had previously accused Rouhani’s government of not filtering 8,000 Telegram channels with “criminal content” in a recent interview with Iranian state TV.
Conservatives’ hatred of Telegram is tied to their defeat in the recent presidential election. One of the major reasons Ebrahim Raeisi, the candidate supported by Khamenei, lost to incumbent Rouhani was the effective usage of social media by the president’s supporters, writes Majid Mohammadi, an Iranian sociologist residing in the United States, in an op-ed for Radio Farda.
While state media were deeply involved in criticizing Rouhani’s performance over the past four years as a way to facilitate Raeisi’s victory, the president and his supporters used social media to spread their message, answer criticisms, and attack the opponents.
The judiciary, loyal to the supreme leader, even arrested about a group of administrators for pro-reformist Telegram channels supporting Rouhani in an effort to weaken his election campaign. But ultimately they were not successful, and Rouhani won the election with more than 24 million votes.
To address the challenge posed by Telegram, conservatives are working on another strategy. They are demanding that Telegram transfer its servers to Iran and that otherwise it would face filtering.
On July 22, Fars News Agency quoted a government official as saying that Telegram had agreed.
The news raised concern among many Iranian users about their account privacy and security.
Shortly after, however, it turned out to be nothing but a false alarm. “No Telegram servers (or any other servers with private data of our users) will be moved to Iran or installed there,” Telegram founder Pavel Durov wrote in Twitter in response to questions by Iranian users.