The Feb. 26 parliamentary elections are the first elections to take place in Iran during which Telegram will be, by far, the most-used messaging service in the country. Approximately 13 million to 14 million Iranians are on the service. Iranian media, from Reformist to hard-line outlets, and Iranian officials, from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to lesser-known authorities, all have their own official Telegram accounts. The ubiquitous use of the messaging service poses a challenge for authorities, which want a big turnout but also one without protests or other gatherings or excessive celebrations.
What has made Telegram so popular, other than it has not yet been blocked, is that many Iranians now have smartphones. According to Seyyed Abul-Hassan Firouzabadi, secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace, 39 million Iranians own smartphones — that is, approximately half the country's population.
Speaking on Iranian television Feb. 23, Firouzabadi said, “In this round of elections, we are witnessing widespread access to social media that we have not seen in previous elections.” He added that during previous balloting, there were approximately 300,000 people with access to smartphones with access to high speed Internet. Firouzabadi did not clarify whether he meant the previous parliamentary elections, in 2012, or the presidential elections in 2013.
Speaking about how quickly news is generated on social media, Firouzabadi said that there are approximately 1,500 news sites in Iran, and that in one day they produced 35,000 news items. Of these 35,000 items, 27%, or 9,450 of them, were related to the elections. Of that 9,450, approximately 1,300 of the items were shared on smartphones.
Given the increase in the use of social media and messaging services, Firouzabadi said that special guidelines were produced for social media outlets to observe the same rules as print and online media. Regarding candidates' use of social media and messaging services, Firouzabadi warned that some contenders might publish unreliable polls showing them to be winning.
Mahmoud Vaezi, minister of information and communication technology, said that his ministry as well the Interior Ministry have formed their own special committees to monitor social media activity by candidates. There are approximately 6,200 parliamentary candidates. The Supreme Council for Cyberspace already has a special committee monitoring social media content, on which the Interior, Intelligence and Culture Ministries and the Cyber Police all have a representative.
“All the affairs related to the election activities in social media will be observed and evaluated by these two committees,” Vaezi said. He added that in the case of violations of the law, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology would not pursue a legal case. Rather, it would be up to the Interior Ministry and the judiciary to pursue a case and then his ministry would enforce any verdict.
After the 2009 elections and protests, the popular social media websites Facebook and Twitter were blocked in Iran. Despite the hype, it remains unclear how influential these platforms were in helping protesters organize. Telegram, as a messaging platform, has become much more popular and more commonly used than Facebook or Twitter.
In preparation for the elections, Hossein Ashtari, head of Iran’s police, said that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the police would deploy 250,000 officers across the country “to ensure the process is carried out democratically and safely.”
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