Protests in Iran: Government Uses Internet ‘Kill-Switch’ as ​​Tech-savvy Youth Continue to Circumvent Digital Censorship | World news

How dangerous can a seven second video be?

Short clips like this showing the protests Iran have been widely shared online since the death of a young woman a month ago sparked civil unrest across the country.

Mahsa AminiThe name in both English and Persian has become the most used hashtag in the world over the past six months, according to exclusive data shared with Sky News.

The glimpses these viral posts give to Iran have been deemed so harmful that the country’s government has developed a “kill-switch” to shut down Internet access on a more sophisticated level than before

Internet monitor Netblocks told Sky News that Iran was able to cut regions and platforms faster and more accurately. Iran has mainly operated a nationwide daily internet curfew with some additional limits.

Previously, it took Iran more than 24 hours to impose a nationwide information blackout during the 2019 protests.

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This breakthrough allows Iran to be more focused on where and what it targets with its controls, meaning that digital infrastructure needed elsewhere can stay online and economic costs are minimized.

“Although Iran’s capability has been described as a ‘kill-switch’ in the past, this is the first time we have witnessed such a coordinated disruption of connectivity and online resources on a large scale,” he told Sky News. founder of NetBlocks, Alp Toker.

Launched in 2017, NetBlocks monitors online governance, internet freedom and cybersecurity.

Freedom House ranks Iran as one of the worst countries in the world for internet freedom and almost all social media platforms are effectively blocked there.

NetBlock’s research shows that Iran has routinely imposed an internet curfew during protests and has also restricted two social media apps that are usually accessible, Instagram and WhatsApp.

By cutting off the access of millions of people to Instagram and the web in general, Iran has attempted to isolate the country from the rest of the world as it attempts to bring the demonstrations under control.

But tech-savvy young protesters exploited cracks in the regime’s barrier to release hundreds of films, just like the seven-second video.

Sky News has been monitoring the footage since the protests began. Many of the videos are short. This makes them easier to send to Iranians abroad who may share seats beyond the reach of Iranian controls.

Protesters chant slogans during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini who was arrested by the Morale Police, in central Tehran, Iran
Image:
It has been four weeks of protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, pictured

The hashtag refers to Mahsa Amini, the young woman whose death sparked the civil disobedience still rampant in Iran. The 22-year-old was killed after she was arrested by officials who claimed she was wearing her lei hijab (head covering) ‘improperly’.

Exclusive data from TalkWalker, a social analytics firm, reveals that #MahsaAmini has been posted at least 65.1 million times on the internet since her death in mid-September. Her Persian her name, # مهسا_امینی, has been published at least 305.5 million times.

The protests in Iran have gone truly global, with #MahsaAmini published a million times in the UK alone since his death.

TalkWalker data also shows that 93% of those who post to #MahsaAmini and #مهسا_امینی worldwide and only in Iran are between the ages of 18 and 34.

This goes to show that not only are the protests on the ground being led by young people, but this same demographic has been waging an online war against the regime.

Iran’s young online army is potentially sizable. About 48 million people out of Iran’s 85 million population are on social media. Many of those online are young: 60% of the country’s population is under the age of 30.

A young woman films during a protest in Iran in early October
Image:
A young woman films during a protest in Iran in early October

Mona Tajali, author and associate professor of international relations and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Agnes Scott College, told Sky News that while Iranian women have protested continuously since the 1979 revolution, this younger generation is “more expert” with social media.

“The reason we have #MahsaAmini everywhere is that it started with a female journalist [Niloufar Hamedi]… She went to the hospital, took pictures of her and put them on social media once she died. This is all quite intentional. It didn’t happen by accident,” she says.

Dr Babak Rahimi, an academic who co-edited a book on social media in Iran, warns that this tactic is risky.

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“It is extremely challenging. The moment you post something about an event that is happening on social media, the government sees it too.

“Since then their social media surveillance has become increasingly sophisticated [the civil unrest in] 2009.”

The protests were heavily guarded, with protesters beaten in the street and arrested. At least 144 men, women and children were killed by Iranian security forces between September 19 and October 3, according to human rights group Amnesty International.

Footage shared online is often blurry or showing the backs of people's heads, as in this screenshot from a video of female students protesting
Image:
Footage shared online is often blurry or showing the backs of people’s heads, as in this screenshot from a video of female students protesting

Those who film and upload videos are aware of the dangers. Most of the videos seen by Sky News are heavily blurred to hide people’s faces or people are deliberately filmed from behind.

There is little access to other digital tools used by journalists. Street-level views available on Google Maps and Mapillary, which are used to help confirm locations, are underpopulated Iran.

The areas highlighted in blue and green below show where the road can be viewed. Where the map is not marked it means there is no Street View.

Iran has only a handful of blue highlights (indicating where images taken in street view are) compared to the mainland in Europe and elsewhere.  Photo: Google Maps
Image:
Iran has only a handful of blue highlights (indicating where images taken in street view are) compared to the mainland in Europe and elsewhere. Photo: Google Maps
Iran has poor coverage compared to other areas on Mapillary, another site where you can search for street-view photography.  Pic: Mapillare
Image:
Iran has less coverage than other areas on Mapillary, another site where you can search for street-view photography. Pic: Mapillare

Despite these limitations, many of the videos are verifiable and give us information.

In the seven-second video, the filmmaker appears to be one of the young women making up this crowd of protesters near the distinctive building of Shiraz University in southern Iran.

The distinctive shape of Eram Campus of Shiraz University can be seen in the video and confirmed on Google Earth (inset)
Image:
The distinctive shape of Eram Campus of Shiraz University can be seen in the video and confirmed on Google Earth (inset)

Headscarves are waved in the air, women clap and shout loudly, while others hold up homemade placards.

A woman close to our video maker is also recording. As she holds up her phone in her bright yellow case, we see the frames of her sunglasses gleam in the sunlight.

The woman who is filming hides her face behind sunglasses and a mask
Image:
The woman who is filming hides her face behind sunglasses and a mask

The glasses serve the same purpose as your COVID-19 mask: They are worn not to protect your health, but to protect your identity.

She’s not alone in this: a number of women in the crowd have taken steps to hide their faces.

Masks and glasses have become a key way for protesters to hide their identities
Image:
Masks and glasses have become a key way for protesters to hide their identities

These women and the Iranian people in general know that what they are doing is dangerous, but they are ready to take the risk, both on the street and online.

Azadeh Pourzand, a human rights researcher at SOAS University in London, says Mahsa Amini’s death has affected many in Iran.

She says the Morality Police, which first arrested Amini, are arresting large numbers of young women.

“It was so easy to relate to an average Iranian woman. You didn’t have to be an activist. You didn’t have to be a dissident. All you had to be was an Iranian woman,” she says.

“That’s what triggered it, but people have lost patience.

“They want to see a change in their life.

“Women are at the center, but this isn’t just done by women for women. It’s also by women and people for political change.”


Additional reporting by Kieran Devine, digital investigative reporter

The Data and forensic medicine team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We collect, analyze and visualize data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting capabilities with advanced analysis of satellite imagery, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world by also showing how our journalism is done.