Iranian Hardliners Finally Join Social Media Ahead Of Elections

Up until this campaign, social media was used in Iran largely by what was seen as a relatively young and liberal reformist political camp

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures during a campaign rally in Tehran — REUTERS
May 17, 2017 at 10:29 AM ET

Although Facebook and Twitter are officially blocked in Iran, social media platforms in Iran are playing a significant role ahead of the presidential elections this week where the two leading candidates are reformist incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi, who oversaw the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

In an unprecedented move, the candidates are attempting to reach younger voters through social media, something they’ve never done before. Up until now, social media in Iran was largely seen as a platform for relatively young and liberal reformers.

Supporters of the hardline camp are now widely visible online, in thousands of posts on Twitter or joining dozens of channels and groups affiliated with their candidate on the Telegram messaging app, which used by an estimated 20 million people in Iran. Thousands of posts by pro-Raisi camp include hashtags such as “we will not make the same mistake” and “change for the people.” This week, pro-Raisi users launched a campaign titled “End of the week, Rouhani is gone,” posting memes showing the Iranian president ready to leave with a packed bag and suitcase and videos of voters chanting the slogans at pro-Raisi rallies.

Others posts by the conservative camp allegedly show Rouhani’s car being attacked by protesters, scenes that went viral around the country. Raisi also live-streamed rallies on Instagram and has held online Q&A sessions, AFP reported, which is unprecedented. Hardline Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who quit the race to shore up support for Raising, used Twitter and Telegram to release documents accusing his rivals of corruption.

Vocativ has found that even though the conservative camp in Iran has been very enthusiastic in its embrace of social media, it lags behind the savviness of Rouhani’s reformist camp. Out of more than a million tweets in Farsi in the past month, pro-Rouhani tweets feature almost five times more posts than the conservatives.

Rouhani’s camp used Telegram recently to share a video message from former President Mohammad Khatami calling upon supporters to vote for Rouhani “to strengthen the hope and for a better future.” Rouhani’s supporters used Telegram to bypass the country’s censorship, because Iran’s media has been banned for over two years from publishing the name or images of Khatami himself. Others posted under the hashtags “Rouhani is not alone,” “we are not going back,” and “Rouhani until 1400,” referring to the Persian year in the next presidential elections.

A Rouhani political rally in Ahwaz, west of Iran

Iran’s president broadly manages domestic affairs while the actual head of state is the Supreme Leader, now Ayatollah Khomeini, who has constitutional authority over everything in the country, including the armed forces, foreign policy, and the judiciary.