Iranian politicians flock to controversial social media in election campaign | News | DW | 17.04.2017
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Iranian politicians flock to controversial social media in election campaign

On May 19, Iranians will elect a new president. Despite outstanding official confirmation, the candidates have begun campaigning on Iran's hard-to-access social networks.

"Without my government there wouldn't be any social networks in Iran," Iran's President Hassan Rouhani boasted on April 10.

It was his last press conference before the start of the official presidential election campaign. On May 19, Iranians will vote for their next president. However, it's still not clear who will actually be standing.

Iran Präsident Rohani zu U.S. Luftschlägen gegen syrischen Luftwaffenstützpunkt (picture-alliance/AA/Iranian Presidency)

Iranian President Rouhani is active on social media

The official registration period for presidential candidates only started on Tuesday April 11 and the candidates had five days in which to register. Then comes the first hurdle on in the presidential race: The so-called Council of Guardians has to approve their candidacy.

Campaigning on Instagram

The Council of Guardians, part of Iran's political system, confirms the candidates' "ideological qualifications" in the run-up to the elections. Current President Rouhani must also re-submit himself to this examination. The incumbent, regarded as a reformer, has encountered considerable resistance, even from within the administration.

On April 10, state television refused to live broadcast Rouhani's press conference. The director of IRIB, Iran's state radio and television broadcaster, is directly appointed by head of state Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and belongs to the conservative camp.

However, it was possible to watch Rouhani's press conference live on Instagram, one of the few social networks allowed in Iran. Rouhani has more than a million Instagram followers - that's more than the highly popular trainer of the Iranian national football team.

Screenshot Instagram Account Hassan Rouhani (instagram/hrouhani)

President Rouhani has over 1 million Instagram followers

"The grassroots of the reform-oriented camp are found among the young, well-educated social classes," said political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam from the University of Tehran. In an interview with DW, he explained that "the best way for them to reach their followers is via social media."

In the last election, Rouhani promised his followers a lot of things. Four years ago he announced that he would advocate an end to Iran's blockade of the internet. All Iranians should, he said, get the right to easily access all information worldwide.

Read more: Iran's 'blogfather' - why social media is killing the free web

Facebook and Twitter still blocked

"President Rouhani could not, and cannot, achieve that by himself," said the journalist Reza Haghighatnejad in an interview with DW. "Since 2012, decisions on internet policy have been taken by Iran's Supreme Council of Cyberspace. The head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, created this authority, and it's accountable to him. The government has only one representative on this council."

Iran is a young nation: The average age there is just 30. According to official statistics, more than half of its 80 million-strong population are online – despite the fact that access to many popular websites such as Facebook or Twitter is blocked inside the country. But many Iranians evade the censor by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

The short message service Twitter is a sensitive medium in Iran. Following the disputed presidential elections in 2009, Twitter was used to disseminate news worldwide about the protest movement. The demonstrators themselves often coordinated their actions via Twitter. It became the medium of the "Green Movement."

Read more: The state of Iran's Green Movement

Under the controversial presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Twitter was strictly controlled. During his two terms in office from 2005 to 2013, the hardliner's threats against Israel and expansion of Iran's nuclear program caused constant tensions with the West, thereby ensuring Iran's political and economic isolation.

Hardliners tweeting too

But politicians are also using social media. Almost all the members of the reform-oriented government have Twitter accounts, and Zibakalam said the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, broke Iran's Twitter taboo.

"During the nuclear negotiations, Zarif started to keep Iran's young audience informed via Twitter. Conservative circles were in fact opposed to these negotiations, and moreover, they control all state media in Iran," remembers Zibakalam, who lives in Tehran. "They couldn't do anything against Zarif, though. But then they also started using social networks."

And just a few weeks before the presidential elections, ex-president Ahmadinejad took to tweeting as well.

"Follow me @Ahmadinejad1956. That's me. Peace, love and best wishes," the hardliner announced in English in a short video posted on Twitter. His initiative was perceived as a new election campaign strategy by hardliners.

Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose word is effectively law in the Islamic Republic, advised the radical fundamentalist Ahmadinejad against a candidacy as far back as 2016, and the 60-year-old Ahmadinejad agreed to forgo the race.

But after numerous denials, the former Iranian president will, in fact, now stand in May's election. On Wednesday he registered his candidacy at the Interior Ministry along with his long-term deputy Hamid Baghaei, whom he had repeatedly promised to support in challenging incumbent Hassan Rouhani.

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