Opinion – My video criticizing the Iranian government went viral. Then Instagram restricted my account

Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights campaigner. She hosts “Tablet,” a talk show on Voice of America’s Persian service.

On July 17, Instagram restricted my access. I still don’t understand why.

What did I do wrong? I still don’t know. Instagram didn’t initially offer any explanation. I might guess that my offense was giving voice to the voiceless in Iran. My 7 million followers on Instagram make for a powerful platform.

On July 12, Iranian women had staged a day of action to challenge the Islamic republic’s National Day of Hijab and Chastity, set up to reinforce the country’s harsh law on forced veiling. Over the next days, I posted many videos on my social media feeds showing women defying the regime’s official dress code.

There were confrontations between these women and the morality police and security forces. In one video from July 16, a hijab-wearing woman films a bareheaded woman on a bus, warning that she will send the recording to the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Another woman on the bus films her in return.

“I know you are filming me now to send it to Masih Alinejad. She cannot do anything to me. But the Revolutionary Guards will destroy you,” says the traditionally attired woman. One of the other female passengers retorts, “I’ll send my video to the whole world.” Other passengers stop the bus and push out the veiled harasser. (The woman who refused to wear the hijab was later arrested.)

That video — which I shared — went viral on social media; it was viewed 2.5 million times on Instagram and more than 1 million times on Twitter. It shows how many women are resisting forced Islamization.

A day later, I suddenly received a message from Instagram informing me that it had restricted my access: “We limit how often you can do certain things on Instagram to protect our community.” For a full day, I wasn’t able to use Instagram Live. There was no further explanation or appeals process. “Tell us if you think we made a mistake,” the note concluded, offering two options, “Tell us” and “OK.”

So I clicked on “Tell us.” I got a pop-up window that said: “Thank you, your response has been recorded.”

That was it.

(Asked to comment, an Instagram representative said the restriction “was placed on Masih’s account incorrectly because of a technical issue,” explaining that the platform automatically issues restrictions “when our systems detect spammy behavior.” The representative added: “It is against our policies to take action on accounts at the request of the Iranian government.”)

Since launching the “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign (1 million followers) against compulsory hijab on Facebook and Instagram in 2014, I have been targeted by the Iranian regime for my activities. I spent months in multiple safe houses last year after the FBI foiled a plot by Iranian agents to kidnap me in New York and whisk me back to Iran. On all my social media platforms, I am targeted by cyberbullies, fake accounts spreading false narratives, and even troll accounts impersonating my page.

But now I also feel targeted by the social media platforms. Earlier this year, I met some fellow Iranians who said they couldn’t find me on Instagram. Odd but true! Despite my officially verified account and millions of followers, I was invisible to the network’s search engines. If you typed my name in the search box, more than 50 accounts popped up — but none was mine. (By comparison, when my husband, a Led Zeppelin fan, typed in “Jimmy P,” the verified account of Jimmy Page came up immediately.)

This was not some random glitch. To me, it seemed that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make me unfindable on Instagram.

I managed to complain to Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta, which owns Instagram. The company fixed the problem after a week, but no one ever explained how it was possible for this to have happened in the first place. (The Instagram representative said there have been “instances where we’ve removed content from [my] account in error, mistakenly believing they broke our rules.”

I’m glad Instagram has admitted its mistakes. Technical issues happen; social media restrictions aren’t necessarily proof of censorship or nefarious influence. But there’s a troubling pattern here. Why did the system restrict my account right at the moment when I was about to promote a protest against compulsory hijab? If algorithms have the power to restrict accounts, can the Iranian regime game those systems in its own favor?

And then there’s the human factor. Many Iranians have been accusing Instagram and Facebook content moderators of deleting or censoring accounts that track the regime’s human rights abuses. In May, Iran International blamed Instagram for removing images of security forces beating protesters and firing tear gas into crowds.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers who had worked for Telus International, a company hired by Instagram to monitor content, claimed that Iranian agents have offered as much as $10,000 to delete and censor accounts (including mine) that report on human rights violations. (Telus International told the BBC that it believed the accusations were false “but that it took them very seriously and had launched an investigation into their merits.” In its statement to The Post, Instagram also said it has seen no evidence for the claims but is investigating as well.)

Last week, when security forces stormed the houses of the activist group Mothers for Justice, they warned members of the group to stop using Instagram to speak up about the killing of their children. That tells you everything you need to know about Instagram’s importance as a means for creating open discussion in Iran.

Social media gives ordinary people a chance to push back against the lies of authoritarian regimes such as Iran’s. Social media companies should not be doing the work of authoritarian governments. They should be helping to spread the truth.


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