An Iranian Culture Ministry official says the messaging service Telegram is Iran's most popular media outlet.
Speaking at a seminar on media in Tehran on 26 December, Hamidreza Ziayiparvar, the ministry's director general for media studies and planning said Telegram has 40 to 45 million users in Iran.
Telegram was banned in Iran in the aftermath of January 2018 protest demonstrations in which the messaging service was used to mobilize protesters and organize widespread anti-government demonstrations. However, the ban had very little impact on Telegram's popularity as users quickly learned to use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to circumvent filtering.
In Iran, the state TV was for a long time believed to be the most popular and authoritative news outlet, but it lost its significance as "national media", as government officials like to call it, due to biased news coverage in favor of the hard core and conservative faction in the Islamic Republic.
Mr. Ziayiparvar now says that "Telegram, and not the state TV, is Iran's national media," adding that "Over 60 percent of Iranians, that is 55 million people, have access to the Internet, and between 40 to 45 million of them are actively using Telegram."
The official, a journalist by profession, stressed that people did not leave Telegram despite the ban imposed by the government.
He said Instagram and Twitter are Iran's second and third most popular social media platforms after Telegram. He added that Twitter, which has some 10 million users in Iran, is mainly used by the more educated strata in the country.
Other reports put the number of Iranian users on Instagram at 15 to 22 million, but the platform is used for sharing pictures of homes, food and pets although there some more serious content is also shared.
Telegram and Twitter are officially banned in Iran and there are discussions on the media about a possible ban on Instagram to be perhaps imposed soon. However, all of Iran's top officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani are active on Twitter.
Recently, officials at Iran's Cyberspace control center as well as some hardline clerics called for a ban on Instagram, if it refuses to give the government access to users' private data, most notably their geolocation, which reveals their whereabouts in case security agents want to arrest them.
Apart from private messaging, Telegram also offers channels some individuals, as well as government organizations and political groups use for their messaging.
Opposition forces based abroad as well as rival political groups inside Iran widely use Telegram for dissemination of information and disinformation while the public is not fully familiar with the idea of fake news. Nevertheless, Iran's state TV has been often criticized for being less popular and reliable than some of the news channels on Telegram. The same channels, on the other hand, are often criticized by intellectuals and media professionals for biased and inaccurate reporting.
In the meantime, the government's attempt to replace Telegram with homegrown messaging services failed due to their lack of popularity and recently the government stopped funding a project aimed at developing a national messaging service.
However, the government insists that only 79 percent of Telegram's initial users in Iran are still using the messaging service after it was banned in February.
In his Wednesday speech, Ziaeiparvar said that the government can no longer ignore social media. "On social media, a single user can create a media jolt single-handedly," he said.
The popularity of social media in Iran is in spite of the government's constant monitoring and occasional clampdown on activists using the empowerment it affords them. At least two social media activists have died in jail in the past five years, one in December 2018. International media freedom watchdog Reporters without Borderss have characterized the Islamic Republic of Iran as one of the five biggest jailers of journalists in the world in its 2018 report.