Many Iranian human rights activists have often wondered why Twitter and other social media organizations take so little action against the Islamic republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other government officials. Meanwhile, Khamenei has banned 83 million Iranians from Twitter, although he and his allies make full use of social platforms to spread their lies — without even a hint of warning labels. The social media playing field remains starkly tilted in favor of the dictatorship.
Testifying before a Senate hearing last October, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said Khamenei’s anti-Semitic tweets and his calls for the eradication of Israel didn’t violate the company’s rules because they were only “saber-rattling.” Since Khamenei’s verbal attacks weren’t aimed at his own citizens, Dorsey claimed, they were permissible.
This is shortsighted — and plain wrong. For many ordinary Iranians, Khamenei’s words are not empty threats but have real consequences on their lives. The most striking example is the wave of protests in November 2019, when the regime shut down the Internet for at least a week. Many activists and journalists were anxiously scrambling to find out what was happening on the ground in Iran in the face of a nationwide information blackout.
The moment the Internet connection was restored, many activists like myself were deluged with videos from citizen journalists showing how security forces were shooting live bullets at protesters.
During the period when ordinary Iranians couldn’t get online, Khamenei and many other regime officials were the only ones who used the Twitter platform. While the government was brutally killing its own people in the streets, Khamenei and other officials were using Twitter to mislead the world.
A Reuters report estimated that more than 1,500 protesters died at the hands of the regime.
(Asked to comment, a Twitter representative said in an email: “Our policy framework recognizes that it may be in the public interest to view Tweets from world leaders that would otherwise be removed under the Twitter Rules,” though such leaders may “face suspension if they engage in certain egregious behaviors.”)
Ironically, when activists post videos of brutal crackdowns by the paramilitary forces or the thuggish behavior of the morality police, Twitter and Facebook take them down or put warning labels on them. When the Islamic republic uses violence against its own population, Twitter prevents me from showing it.
Or consider Khamenei’s statements about women. As the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum worldwide, Khamenei claimed women in the West were being raped and sexually harassed because they don’t wear the hijab. Meanwhile, if any woman files a complaint about rape in Iran, she’s often cast as the culprit for not properly wearing what the regime considers to be proper “Islamic” attire. Khamenei routinely uses his Twitter account to push for enforcement of hijab rules. The company seems unconcerned.
Khamenei tweets in four languages, Persian, Arabic, English and Spanish, but Twitter does a strikingly poor job of monitoring these channels. Khamenei has spread dangerous disinformation about covid-19, most recently by warning Iranians to avoid Western vaccines. Only after pressure did Twitter remove one such post from his English-language account — but it allowed Khamenei to post the same disinformation in Persian. Meanwhile, accounts that promote similar conspiracy theories in the United States or Europe are routinely suspended, banned or provided with warning labels.
Iranians do not have the benefit of the democratic institutions that protect the rights of the U.S. citizenry. Our only tool to hold power to account is social media, above all in the form of Twitter or Facebook. Even using these platforms can land Iranians in jail.
The Committee to Protect Journalists gave its 2020 International Press Freedom Award to Iranian journalist Mohammad Mosaed, who was sentenced to more than four years in prison and banned from conducting any journalism activities or using any communication devices for two years. His crimes: posting on Twitter in November 2019, writing that he was using 42 different proxy servers to access the Internet, and then criticizing the government on social media in February 2020.
Khamenei has called for crackdowns on his own people. He promotes misogyny and encourages violence against women and different ethnic and religious groups. Only when he called in February 2019 for British Indian author Salman Rushdie to be killed did Twitter take down the offending post after much protest — but it only temporarily locked Khamenei’s account rather than banning it.
It is time to start restricting social media access for those authoritarian leaders and high-ranking officials who advocate violence against dissidents. It’s time for Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and the other tech titans to stop giving Khamenei the means to preach hatred. We must hold all dictators to account.