Several Iranian feminists and women’s rights activists both inside and outside of Iran have reported suffering from cyberattacks targeting their social media accounts, especially on Instagram.
A joint letter sent by many of these Iranian women to Meta, the umbrella company for social media platforms including Instagram and Facebook, which was published last month, said that at least 20 of their individual and group accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, often focusing on feminist discourse, saw thousands of followers added in a short period of time that proved to be bots – an automated program designed to mimic human users, usually with nefarious intent.
The letter accused the Iranian government of being behind the cyberattacks.
“In these cyberattacks, which are often managed and sponsored by companies affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the bots swarmed our social media pages in order to temporarily disable them,” said the open letter.
Faravaz Farvardin, one of the victims of the cyberattack, is an Iranian underground singer who ran away from the Islamic Republic after facing prosecution for illegally singing, who today resides in Germany. She told The Media Line that the Iranian feminists think that the Iranian government spent large sums of money on the attacks.
She noted that “it’s happening to every Iranian feminist. Some of them already had 300,000 followers, some of them only had like 2,000 followers. It doesn’t matter, they started attacking each of us,” she said.
Nasrin Afzali, a human rights activist from Iran who is currently based in Massachusetts in the United States, is another victim of the attack.
“My social media account is called ‘Feminism Every Day,’ which I have for almost eight years,” she told The Media Line.
She noted that her account was first targeted in April 2022. “I noticed that very big amounts of fake accounts were following me in a very short period,” she said.
She said that she immediately contacted Instagram, and other media activists whose organizations are supposed to help combat the digital and cyberattacks. “They have been helpful in previous times, but this time they couldn’t do anything,” she said.
Farvardin also recalled being surprised by the amount of new fake accounts following her.
She said that, according to the Instagram algorithm, when an account gets so many fake followers, its number of following grows, but the likes and views remain the same, resulting in an imbalance with the number of followers. “That makes Instagram start to show your posts, your profile and your story to less people,” she said.
“Almost all of us had to make our account private to avoid that,” she continued.
Farvardin noted that, as a musician, she needs to share her music. “I have concerts, my daily life happens in my Instagram: First of all, because it is the only way that I have connection with my fans, and with the women in Iran. Second, it’s threatening my job and it’s changing everything for me.”
Another one of the women whose account was targeted, is Saba Abdollahi, an Iranian feminist activist, critic and author of the feminist magazine “Bidaad,” who is still living in Iran.
She noted that after the number of her social media account’s followers, likes and views went out of balance, it ruined her activity on the platform.
“My views of every single post were terrible, my stories were almost hidden from my followers and, because of huge number of notifications of new followers, I didn’t have access to my comments. Besides, my page was not shown on search engine of Instagram,” she told The Media Line.
All three women said that the fake accounts that started following them were created a few days beforehand, they had no posts, and their profile pictures where either caricatures, Asian-looking people whose pictures were used for many different accounts, or pictures of Qasem Soleimani, who was the commander of the elite Iranian Quds forces before he was killed in Iraq in January 2020.
These women accuse the Iranian government of being behind the cyberattacks.
Farvardin stressed that what is happening is something so big, and so well organized and well planned, that she doesn’t believe any other body has the money and the motive to take the trouble to do so.
They are attacking thousands of feminist accounts at the same time, she said, “and it’s not something cheap. It must have something really big behind, and I think, who could do that? Just our government because they are the only people that have a problem with women power,” she said.
Abdollahi said that the Iranian government supports demonstrations of anti-feminist men, and devote an entire budget to their activities in the name of supporting activities associated with the “family institution.”
“I think that Iranian anti-feminist groups supported by the government are targeting us to make Instagram a place like the streets of Iran. A place that is not safe and secured for women,” she said.
Afzali said that, also, some of Instagram’s workers have been bribed by the Iranian government to remove some of the content that does not suit its agenda, including some of these women’s posts, stories and accounts.
“This happened so many times to our page. Stories and posts that had nothing wrong and are 100% based on the rules and regulations of Instagram were deleted,” she said.
The BBC reported on May 27 that a Persian-language content moderator for Instagram and a former content moderator have said that Iranian intelligence officials offered them money to remove the Instagram accounts of journalists and activists.
In addition, these women reported constantly receiving threatening messages for publishing their content.
Farvardin said that she received messages threatening her life and the life of her parents, and messages such as: “we are coming, we know where you live, we will come and kill you,” or “don’t think that because you left Iran you are safe, we can find you everywhere.”
She added that sometimes she receives pictures of men beheading women, with messages that say: “we are going to do exactly this to you and to your family.”
Farvardin noted that these scary messages remind her of the importance of what she is doing. “Otherwise, they would not spend so much money and time on trying to scare us. It’s giving us power to continue and try to change everything,” she said.
She added that women in Iran are finally being empowered by the content that these accounts publish, and she says that she believes that the next revolution in Iran will be the “female revolution.”
The women have urged Meta to help them combat these attacks so that they can continue transmitting their messages.
Abdollahi says that the most important message transmitted by her social media pages is “Iranian women have the same equal rights as the Iranian men to occupy space in public and stay safe.”
“But after all these attacks I can’t transmit my message no longer,” she added.