Internet services like WhatsApp and Instagram are currently being blocked in Iran along with at least two major mobile networks, according to the UK-based internet access watchdog Netblocks. The internet disruptions are happening as Iran continues to see protests in multiple cities following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody last week—and those internet disruptions are what makes reporting on these events so difficult for news outlets trying to wade through the truth and lies of a disinformation war being waged by countries like Iran, Russia, and China on one side and the US and its allies on the other.
Amini, a Kurdish woman from the northwestern territories of Iran, was detained last week by Iran’s morality police for not covering herself modestly enough with a hijab while she was visiting Tehran. Amini died on September 16 at a Tehran hospital after spending three days in a coma, which is not disputed. What is disputed is precisely why Amini died. The young woman was allegedly beaten by police before she was admitted to the hospital, but Iranian officials insist she suffered an unrelated heart attack.
Whatever the actual cause of Amini’s death, some people in Iran seem to have made up their minds about what happened, coming out in force to demonstrate on the streets of the capital city Tehran, along with at least 50 other towns, according to Reuters. But the government of Iran seems to hope that the organization of those protests will be hindered, at least in part, by strict control over the internet infrastructure in the country.
WhatsApp and Instagram are the last western-owned social media companies still allowed in Iran, although some users within the country access platforms like Facebook and Twitter through VPN services. But with Iranian authorities causing mass disruptions of WhatsApp and Instagram, it’s more difficult than ever for people to spread their message, let alone organize mass movements on the ground.
The protests in Iran are definitely happening, as evidenced by the photos and videos making their way through international wire services and social media, although it’s difficult for western news outlets to ascertain just how widespread the demonstrations might be. One aspect that makes an objective assessment difficult is the US government’s amplification of certain stories in so-called enemy countries through social media accounts made to look like regular people. And the death of a young woman at the hands of morality police is precisely the kind of story western liberal democracies want to highlight.
The Pentagon was recently warned by social media companies like Twitter that it was often easy to detect when a given account was operated by US government interests and contractors. And the fact that US intelligence agencies are running social media accounts to amplify negative stories about Iran— just as state media in countries like Russia and China do about the US—journalists have to be incredibly vigilant about news that’s being pushed out during controversial events.
In short, we can say with some degree of certainty that internet access and mobile networks are being massively disrupted in Iran thanks to the protests. But beyond that, we’ll have to take “expert” analysis about potential color revolutions in Iran with a huge grain of salt. We’ll believe it when we see it.
Click through the slideshow for more photos from Iran of people protesting the death of Mahsa Amini, images that we believe to be real because they come from trusted news wire services. But even the Associated Press is forced to issue warnings about the source of its images during times like these, as you can see from this warning in a caption of one photo published on Wednesday:
In this Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, protesters chant slogans during a protest over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran.
That about sums it up. Shutting down the internet doesn’t just hamper the organizing of protests on the ground. It can hinder the ability of news outlets to reliably get photos out of the country for the rest of the world to see.