Four years ago, social media proved one of its great values to the world: Facebook
(NASDAQ:FB), Twitter, and the rest of their peers could allow people in dangerous and censored situations to instantaneously share information. Social media coverage of the 2009 presidential election in Iran brought to light violence, oppression, and human-rights crimes. A year later, social media weighed even heavier in the politics of a foreign part of the world: the Arab Spring was not so much televised as it was tweeted and Facebooked.
Protesters and revolutionaries have used social media to great effect, and now, leaders are catching up. In particular, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, is making his mark on Facebook: His page has 107,767 likes. His posts include tutorials on beard-shaving (shaving one’s beard is haram
, meaning “rulings and consequences of a sinful act are applied to it as a matter of caution”), and on the upcoming presidential election (“the words of the candidates should be real, friendly, [and] based on accurate and true information”).
According to the organization United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), the page is also used to foment pro-regime sentiment, and to attack Western influences. As one post from May 1, 2013 read, “You (the US government) are the symbol of evil! This is who wages war in the world, plunders the nations…."
UANI has launched a campaign to have Khamenei’s page taken off of Facebook, with a petition and a message sent directly to Mark Zuckerberg. The group argues that the page goes much further than being anti-American, that it breaks Facebook’s guidelines against hateful, sexist, and discriminatory comments. As Nathan Carleton of UANI told Minyanville, “The regime violates all those terms, and it’s particularly hypocritical for them to be using Facebook when the people of Iran can’t.”
Many are banned from using the social network in Iran, but as Carleton said, “…in reality a lot of Iranians can still look at Facebook. Sometimes they’re going around filters with other computer programs, but they can still see Facebook and that is one of the main reasons Khamenei has a page, so people can view it.”
Moreover, UANI argues in its letter to Zuckerberg that Iranians have been tortured or even killed in relation to something they posted on Facebook.
That Iran’s regime has violated human rights is not disputed (except by Iranian officials), but is this Facebook’s job, to limit the freedom of speech of a regime’s ruler, even if many of his posts are not violent or hateful? Looking at Khamenei’s page, most posts seem more mundane, but maybe that’s just because of increased scrutiny around the presidential elections.
As Carleton said,
We’re not calling on Facebook to get involved in foreign policy, and go country by country and say this leader should have it, this leader shouldn’t have it; this is a very extreme case of a regime that sponsors terror and kills people, tortures people, and so we think, in this case, where you’re dealing with the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, its is not acceptable to give them this platform to promote their cause.
Another issue with the page: comments from Iranian citizens who go the extra mile and post obviously vicious and hateful messages. However, these comments are generally deleted.
Investigating this issue further, Minyanville exchanged emails with Kevin Newtown, the head consultant for Habbibi Consulting. He agreed that much of Khamenei’s page constitutes internal propaganda. He helped put this propaganda in context for us, saying the following:
For the Islamic Revolution to continue, especially despite the decision of the Guardian Council to reject the candidacies of a number of moderate and progressive individuals, focus must be maintained on why the country should listen to its conservative leaders. Namely, that means continuing to demonstrate that the United States is, as one post puts its, "The Symbol of Evil."
Newtown went on to explain how the views of the Ayatollah certainly do not reflect his country as a whole:
Most Iranians want reform. The majority of Iranians are under the age of 30 -- try telling a group of twenty-somethings anywhere that women can’t show their hair, and you’ll find an ardent set of progressives against the idea. However, by continuing to point to an example of what could happen if they accept a more progressive candidate, they are pressed back in the more traditional fold.
As of the time this story was published, UANI has not heard a response from Zucerkberg, and the Khamenei page is still up. This is obviously a complicated matter: How far can Facebook go in limiting freedom of speech before it becomes a political entity?
As for the problem of individual users posting hateful comments, Kevin Newtown told us that Khamenei had given Facebook his word that the regime would take down hateful message and potentially block offensive users. So far, most have been taken down.
Newtown believes Facebook should absolutely continue to force this agreement, but says that “shutting down the whole page would give the Iranian conservative exactly what they want going into election season: more proof that the West does not understand them.”
Members of UANI, however, remain steadfast and await a reply from Zuckerberg. Nathan Carleton concluded his interview with us by stating, “We’re not calling for Facebook to police everything on their site or every leader in the world, but in this situation there’s just no reasonable explanation for why someone should be able to have a Facebook page to say vile, threatening, offensive things, while at the same time blocking it for his own citizens.”
The Iranian presidential election is scheduled to be held Friday, June 14. As of now, there are 686 candidates looking to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is vacating the office due to the two-term limit. The world will be watching, especially via social media.
Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville