Several Iranian feminists, women’s rights activists, and human rights activists inside and outside Iran recently signed a statement condemning the coordinated online targeting of Instagram accounts of those speaking out against the Islamic Republic’s policies towards women.
According to media reports, many Iranian feminists and organizations addressed Instagram and Facebook’s parent company Meta, saying that several individual and group fake accounts obtained followers, which proved to be automated programs designed to mimic human users with nefarious intent. The latest action by Iranian women, feminists, human rights activists, and women’s groups comes as the Islamic regime under President Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to suppress Iranian women speaking out and protesting the government.
According to the joint letter, the advocates indicate that companies affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) enacted cyberattacks using bots to swarm social media pages to disable them temporarily. In the letter, the activists call on Iran authorities to “end their systematic harassment of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and in line with the principles outlined in the ‘Declaration on human rights defenders’ facilitate the work of these WHRDs. Furthermore, we urge Meta to take steps to ensure the safety of its social media platforms for Iranian WHRDs and all others who experience targeted, state-sponsored harassment.”
One of the victims of the cyberattack, an Iranian underground female singer who ran away from the Islamic Republic after facing prosecution for illegally singing, Farvaz Farvardin, told media outlets that Iranian feminists believe that the regime spent large sums of money on the attacks.
According to Farvardin, many other Iranian women’s rights advocates had thousands of followers who started attacking them online. On Instagram and Facebook, activists could not stop the attacks and tried to receive help from media activists to counter the cyberattacks. Many reported that their posts, videos, and stories were hidden from followers because of numerous notifications of new followers.
The fake accounts continued to follow them and were created several days beforehand with no history of posts or profile pictures. According to reports, some profile pictures were caricatures and Asian-looking individuals whose images were on many different accounts. Other accounts were more open with their profile pictures, using images of former IRGC Quds force Chief Qasem Soleimani. Many believe that Iran’s government and anti-feminist groups supported by the regime are targeting outlets like Facebook and Instagram to make the website like the streets of Tehran, where women are not safe and secure.
Iranian women have reportedly received threatening messages for publishing their anti-regime content, with threats towards their lives, friends and family members. Some have even received images of men beheading women. Many activists have seen these responses as proof that their actions are vital and effective against the Islamic Republic, speaking out for many women oppressed under the mullahs.
In late May, the BBC reported that Meta’s Farsi language content moderator admitted to Iranian intelligence officials offering them vast sums of money to remove Instagram accounts belonging to journalists, activists, and human rights groups. The regime also managed to infiltrate parent companies of Facebook and Instagram with young pro-regime activists, censoring posts from human rights activists and banning accounts. Many started to notice their activities in recent months was censored to blocked, particularly as they began posting about the protests in Iran and calling for the downfall of the Islamic regime and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
As Instagram and Facebook continue to deny that pro-regime activists have infiltrated the companies, more activists continue to receive attacks online. In June, several House Republican lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committee wanted information on this issue and demanded to hear from Meta what steps it would take to confront the infiltration of pro-Islamic Republic officials.
Towards the very end of the letter, the Iranian women activists call on Iran’s government to “end its systematic harassment of rights defenders and instead build a more vibrant, inclusive society intent on promoting equality, ending discrimination, and eliminating gender-based violence.” These activists also “stand with Iranian feminists and activists in calling on Meta to investigate these attacks, identify and remove the inauthentic Instagram accounts, and strengthen its response and protection measures for WHRDs who are carrying out their critical work of promoting gender equality and the rights of women and LGBTQI populations.”