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How women, the Green Movement and an app shaped Iran’s elections

- March 1, 2016
An Iranian voter shows her hand with numbers signaling support for all reformists and moderate candidates as she fills out her ballot in Tehran on Feb. 26. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Iran’s Feb. 26 elections witnessed 60 percent voter turnout, producing significant gains for the reformists and moderates associated with President Hassan Rouhani. The results were especially striking since thousands of reformist candidates had been disqualified from running and hard-line elements of the regime had enforced a media blackout of popular reformists, such as former president Mohammad Khatami. How did the moderate bloc galvanize voter turnout in the face of these obstacles?

The reformist/moderate success was shaped by preexisting networks of people and activists, coupled with online organizing via social media platforms — mainly Instagram and Facebook — and the secure chat application, Telegram.

One key preexisting network was the women’s rights movement. Women’s organizations began organizing for the elections in November by releasing videos encouraging women to register as candidates and pushing for a 30 percent increase in seats for women, through “The Campaign for Women to Win 100 Seats.” Significantly, these efforts featured activists from across the political spectrum coming together for one goal: to gain seats for women who would fight for pro-equality gender issues.

The women’s movement in Iran has been the longest and most sustained movement for change in the Islamic Republic. The plethora of activists that make up this movement have longstanding networks that function both online and offline. Activists tapped into these networks and, despite the rampant disqualifications by the Guardian Council, the new Parliament will feature more than double the previous number of female MPs, nearly all from the moderate/reformist coalition. “What women in the movement were able to do as far as pushing women to run as candidates in this election cannot be understated,” said Elnaz Hosseini, a 40-year-old activist who has been involved with various groups in the women’s movement for the past 20 years. In Tehran, all eight women from the Rouhani “List of Hope” have been elected, as well as women from other major cities.

Another prominent network was the plethora of activists, journalists, student leaders and reformists pushed into exile after the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement. With deep organizing experience, these people are now spread out across Europe, North America and Australia, but have maintained strong ties to their networks in Iran. Using their Facebook pages and participating in the vibrant media sphere of the Iranian diaspora – from online news sites to over two-dozen satellite stations broadcast daily into Iran – these activists were crucial in encouraging strong voter turnout. They created online memes, catchy graphics to be used as profile pictures, stickers for chatting applications and short videos to create excitement about the vote and the potential of sidelining the hard-liners. Their organizing experience, especially from campaigning during the 2009 presidential elections, and their ability to tap into their networks should not be underestimated. Their efforts were so effective as to provoke hard-line newspapers and news agencies to denounce the List of Hope as a British-led effort to foment unrest in Iran.

The power of organizing along these preexisting networks was amplified by the effective use of social media platforms and telephone messaging applications. Despite a media blackout on popular reformists, such as Khatami, the former president took to his Instagram page, Telegram channel and YouTube to release a video encouraging all to vote for the reformist/moderate List of Hope in both elections. A Facebook page entitled “We Will Be Khatami’s Press,” helped spread the video. Khatami’s video quickly circulated on social media, and soon after, popular movie and sports celebrities came out in support of voting for the same list, widely touted by the domestic reformist press.

Users, including actress Baran Kosari, began to create Dubsmash videos of Khatami’s speech, creating a ripple effect of his call for participation and making the message go viral. Despite Khatami’s image being banned in Iranian press, his voice reached Iranians on social media. He and other popular reformist figures posted images of themselves with Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, under house arrest. Posters featured the bruised and cut off fingers of the Green Movement peace sign growing new sprouts with people’s vote in this election. The message was clear: A vote in this election for the List of Hope was not only the next step in supporting President Rouhani, but also a continuation of the Green Movement, the largest protest against conservative factions in the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

These social media posters and campaigns were coupled with the use of the secure messaging application Telegram. A popular messaging system developed out of Russia, Telegram has become one of the fastest growing messaging applications, touted as the most secure messaging app in the world. Created by the Durov brothers, the same ones behind Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte, Telegram was created as a communication system that could not be accessed by the Russian security agencies. As such, the app has gained in popularity in other countries, such as Iran.

Using cellphones to spread political messages is not new in Iran — the 2009 Green Movement featured massive circulation of recorded cellphone footage and messaging to spread the updated information about the protests. Yet the subsequent government crackdown on Internet service and the surveillance of online sites by Iran’s cyber army continue to haunt many Iranians.

Telegram, however, with its “Secret Chat” options, offers end-to-end encryption, leaving no trace on the company’s servers and ensuring fast and secure communication. Unlike text messaging on Iran’s telecommunications servers in 2009, these third-party apps are not threatened by government surveillance. There are thousands of chats on Telegram dedicated to the elections, from those created by domestic reformist newspapers and groups, to civil society and student leaders. These chats serve as channels through which groups can get out their message in a secure way to users. Telegram was used extensively in Iran in the lead-up to the election, including stickers of Khatami reminding users to vote.

Despite the Guardian Council’s apparent intent on ensuring a hard-line victory in both the Parliament and Assembly of Experts elections, a combination of existing offline activist networks and online organizing enabled Iranians vying for moderation and slow systematic reform to be heard through the ballot box. With the election over, the activists will continue to pressure President Rouhani to reopen avenues for civil society organizations shut down in the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency. As has been proven in the past three decades, preexisting networks of activists in Iran have been a key force pushing for change, and they will continue to do so.

Narges Bajoghli is a PhD candidate in socio-cultural anthropology at New York University and a documentary filmmaker in NYU’s Culture and Media Program. You can follow her @nargesbajoghli.