Iran has been rocked by a rare wave of protests over economic hardship and lack of civil liberties for the past week, but streets are not the only battleground between the Islamic Republic and its critics. A cyber battle on several fronts is being fought between the two sides on social media platforms. In 2009 – the last time Iran saw demonstrations of such scale – social media was dominated by pro-opposition users and reformists who used Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to share images of the Green Movement to the outside world.

Today, messaging apps are used by a significantly higher percentage of the population and the government is better prepared to confront its opponents on digital media. Many senior hardline politicians and activists use a variety of platforms on a daily basis – despite some being officially blocked – and boast hundreds of thousands of followers sympathetic to their cause.

After the Stuxnet computer worm hit Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010, the country invested heavily in cyber capabilities and set up a team of trained hackers known as the Iranian Cyber-Army. In the absence of independent news outlets and state TV’s typically one-sided coverage, citizens took to social media to share photos and videos of the demonstrations with the aim of disseminating their message and inviting more local residents to join the crowds.

Telegram – which has an estimated 40 million users in Iran, equivalent to almost half the population – has been the platform of choice for the protestors. In response, the officials “temporarily” blocked Telegram and Instagram.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have been banned since 2009. But proponents of the Islamic Republic did not leave the social media battleground to the critics this time. Read more from…

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