In 2009, Iran's Green Movement discovered social networks as a platform for social criticism. Now, supporters of the government are using them for propaganda.
In February, a series of YouTube videos called "Dialogue" appeared on a Google+ page. The Iranian activist Foad Sojoodi Farimani and a supporter of the government Tohid Aziz took part in a series of debates about free and fair elections. They each called on their supporters to ask questions and take part in the debate. The videos showed them criticizing their opponent's arguments and trying to convince them to change their attitude regarding the upcoming presidential elections.
It was one of the few attempts to enter dialogue. Generally, the predominant feelings on the Internet are anger, distrust, fear and hatred.
"We have to stop hating each other and start talking to each other instead," Sojoodi Farimani told DW. "The discussions will better help us to understand each other."
More and more pro-regime users
Sojoodi Farimani said there was a clear difference between the employees of Iran's cyber police, known as FATA, and other supporters of the government. "The 'cyber functionaries' persecute, bully and repress dissidents, but there are also pro-government users who use social networks just like us to exchange views and find out more about their rivals."
The internet is one of the few platforms where Iranians can express themselves freely despite sophisticated filter systems.
All the most popular and famous sites such as Facebook or Twitter have been blocked by the authorities, yet at the same time bloggers say that the number of pro-regime users on these sites is growing very rapidly.
"They justify their presence by saying it's a necessary part of the jihad and the fight against enemies takes place everywhere," explained the Iranian Internet expert Ali Nikoee who now lives in the Netherlands. He explained that Muslim internet experts also used weblogs for propaganda.
Under a false name
In February 2013, cyber activists loyal to the government created false Facebook pages and weblogs with the names of Iranian journalists who work abroad for newspapers, radio or television.
"Some supporters of the regime portrayed themselves as critics on Facebook or in blogs and then gradually gave way to their propaganda. It takes time to find out who is behind such blogs," wrote and Iranian netizen who goes by the name of Vahid Online and has over 13,500 followers on Twitter. He added that there had been repeated attempts to disrupt the activities of users who are critical of the regime in social networks.
"They post hundreds of hate comments under a Facebook or YouTube video about the Green Movement or they declare it as blasphemous so that it's blocked," explained Ali Nikoee.
During the last presidential elections in 2009 and as the Green Movement protests kicked off, social networks were used to mobilize protesters and to show the world what was going on.
No change in strategy
But Vahid Online said that the government was now using the Internet more for its purposes. "They have the necessary money, political influence and institutions backing them as opposed to individuals who have personal convictions but are also scared of persecution."
Nikoee said there were unconfirmed reports that the Iranian cyber police are recruiting volunteers to work for them and track dissent in social networks for seven US dollars per hour.
ViewDNS, a website that monitors user statistics, online activity and censorship, says one in four Iranian websites is filtered.
Iranian police are always on hand in case of protests
Earlier this year, the authorities blocked use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN), which Internet users often use to get around filters.
"I do not think that the government is going to change its filter and censorship strategy anytime soon," said Ali Nikoee. "As soon as they lift the social media filter, the Iranian network will be full of dissident activity."
"Officials in the Islamic Republic keep trying to portray critics as immoral, hypocritical and as Western spies," said Sojoodi Farimani. "Therefore, they don't encourage such sites as 'dialogue' and immediately remove videos from the Internet. They want to prevent their own supporters from finding out that their opponents are people who love their country and want to turn it into a better place."