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Will Twitter ban Iran’s supreme leader next?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, addresses the nation on Jan. 8 in a televised speech in Tehran. (AP)

On an average day, Twitter accounts linked to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, share his official statements and commentary with hundreds of thousands of followers on the U.S. social network.

His messages, though sometimes benign, often include incendiary rhetoric against Iranian activists, Israel and, most recently, coronavirus vaccines.

Ironically, despite Khamenei being a prominent user of the service, Twitter has been banned in Iran since 2009 in the wake of disputed elections that led to massive anti-government protests. Average Iranians can access the platform only by using VPNs to circumvent government controls. With the space for free speech tightly curtailed in Iran, Twitter offers a rare platform for Iranians both in and outside the country to publicly confront their leaders.

But now, following the suspension of then-president Donald Trump after a riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, some Iranian dissidents and activists are asking: Why not Khamenei, too?

“From a domestic perspective, it makes sense for a lot for Iranians to take down Khamenei’s account simply because it’s like a double standard by their leaders imposed on them,” said Simin Kargar, a researcher on human rights and technology and nonresident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.

“From a content moderation perspective, I think after Twitter banned Trump, they stepped into a very murky zone,” she continued. “Because now they are pressured from all sides to be consistent with their policies … and that makes it a lot trickier.”

The Trump effect

The Twitter brand financially benefits from having its platform be the go-to source for politicians, media outlets, and other influential figures and power players. But the company has long faced accusations — which have been renewed in urgency since Trump left office — that it has let hate speech freely circulate.

“I’m not of the opinion Khamenei’s account should be banned because he’s a dictator or because he oversees a country that censors Twitter,” Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and British human rights organization Article 19, wrote in a message. “I think he should be banned because he has consistently broken Twitter’s terms of service and put out problematic content.”

Trump ban by social media companies came after years of accommodation for world leaders who pushed the line

Twitter has said it allows controversial posts by public figures to remain up so people can engage with what they say. It has also distinguished between vague calls for violence — which it allows to remain — and specific threats against individuals or groups — which it says warrant reprisal.

In late January, Twitter suspended an account linked to Khamenei after it shared an image that hinted at violence against Trump, although the platform said it closed it for being a fake account of the unverified Khamenei, a characterization Iran analysts disputed. Two weeks before that, Twitter removed a tweet by Khamenei questioning the trustworthiness of U.S. and U.K. coronavirus vaccines, which it said violated rules against sharing disinformation about the virus.

In July, during a hearing at Israel’s parliament, a Twitter representative defended the decision to allow posts by Khamenei, such as one that referred to Israel as a “cancerous tumor.”

“Foreign policy saber-rattling on political economic issues are generally not in violation of our Twitter rules,” Ylwa Pettersson, Twitter’s head policy for the Nordic countries and Israel, said via video conference, the Saudi Arabia-owned Al Arabiya reported.

“If a tweet from a world leader does violate the Twitter Rules but there is a clear public interest value to keeping the tweet on the service, we may place it behind a notice that provides context about the violation and allows people to click through should they wish to see the content,” according to the company’s standards, last updated on its website in 2019.

Twitter and Khamenei have sparred before: In 2019, the company suspended the Iranian leader’s Persian account until it deleted a tweet calling for violence against the author Salman Rushdie, who faced repeated threats by Iran’s previous supreme leader three decades ago. Twitter later said tweets by Khamenei questioning the Holocaust could stay up, amid ensuing controversy.

“The problem with Twitter is that there isn’t a clear set of rules of what the threshold for banning an account is,” Alimardani wrote. “Chaos had to breakout in the U.S. before Twitter overrode its ‘World Leader’ policy and banned Trump. It seems unclear what threshold Khamenei would have to push to get there, but if the Khamenei account were a normal account [it] would likely have lost its last strike with Twitter and been banned.”

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Locked out

Iran, under Khamenei’s leadership since 1989, has blocked access to Twitter, among other social media platforms and applications such as Facebook and Telegram and, most recently, has targeted Signal. Many Iranian officials, nonetheless, are still on these platform, as are Iranians bypassing filtration. Khamenei has Twitter accounts in Persian, English, Arabic, Russian and Spanish.

Some have argued that it is because of Iran’s top-down crackdown on human rights that keeping global access open to Iranians online, even if that includes Khamenei, remains critical.

Kargar described Twitter’s use by Iranian officials such as Khamenei as an “extension of foreign policy for the government.” In contrast, she said, Iranians in Iran and in the diaspora use it as a sort of “lobbying arm” to counter these official narratives.

Amir Rashidi, an Internet security and digital rights researcher focused on Iran, agreed that, on the one hand, Trump’s ban raised a host of unanswered questions about the company’s treatment of others in power.

“If they apply one rule to Trump, that rule must apply to Khamenei or Putin or Erdogan or whoever,” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But Rashidi cautioned that removing Khamenei from Twitter could have negative effects for people in Iran while playing into the hands of Iranian leaders looking to cut off the country from the Internet as part of an effort to restrict free speech.

“If you remove Khamenei from Twitter, you are not doing anything bad to Khamenei,” he said, noting the supreme leader and his supporters have a prominent presence across online and media platforms in Iran, which are tightly controlled. But by keeping Twitter access, “you’re getting powerful tools for civil society who want to criticize Iranian officials publicly,” he said.

Iranians, he said, cannot openly criticize their leaders in the street. “You can go to Twitter with an anonymous account and say whatever you want to Khamenei and whoever else,” Rashidi said.

In recent years, Iran has been developing its own domestic Internet and alternative platforms to popular applications such as Telegram and Gmail. When the government shuts down Internet access — as it does during times of turmoil, such as anti-government protests in 2019 — people can still access their local banks, email and other domestic sites online.

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“The goal for Iran for the Internet is to localize the Internet, everything inside the country,” Rashidi said. “So if you cut off access to international services, you are doing a favor to that project. You are helping [Iran’s government] to make their Internet more localized.”

Under Trump, Washington ratcheted up U.S. economic sanctions that cut off Iran from much of the world’s banking and financial networks, as well as limited access to online platforms such as Amazon Web Services. Moves like this “did them [the government] a favor,” Rashidi said.

“Strategic wise we need to make Iran more dependent on the international services, international Internet,” he said.