How dangerous can a seven-second video be?
Short clips like this one showing protests in Iran have been widely shared online since the death of a young woman a month ago sparked country-wide civil unrest.
Mahsa Amini‘s name in English and in Persian has become the most used hashtag in the world over the last six months, according to exclusive data shared with Sky News.
The glimpses these viral posts give into Iran have been deemed so damaging that the country’s government has developed a “kill-switch” to cut off access to the internet at a more sophisticated level than before
Internet monitor Netblocks has told Sky News Iran has been able to cut off regions and platforms more quickly and with greater precision. Iran has primarily been operating a daily nation-scale internet curfew with some additional curbs.
Previously, it took over 24 hours for Iran to impose a nation-scale information blackout during the 2019 protests.
This breakthrough enables Iran to be more focused in where and what it targets with its controls, meaning necessary digital infrastructure elsewhere can remain online and economic costs are minimized.
“While Iran’s capability has in the past been described as a ‘kill-switch’ this is the first time we’ve seen such coordinated disruption of connectivity and online resources at scale,” NetBlocks founder Alp Toker told Sky News.
Launched in 2017, NetBlocks monitors online governance, internet freedom and cybersecurity.
Freedom House ranks Iran as one of the worst countries in the world for internet freedom, and nearly all social media platforms are effectively blocked there.
NetBlock’s research shows Iran has been regularly enforcing an internet curfew during the protests and has also been restricting two social media apps that are usually accessible, Instagram and WhatsApp.
By disrupting millions of people’s access to Instagram and the wider web, Iran has attempted to wall the country off from the rest of the world while it attempts to bring the demonstrations under control.
But young, tech savvy protesters have exploited cracks in the regime’s barrier to sneak out hundreds of films – just like the seven-second video.
Sky News has been monitoring clips since the start of the protests. Many of the videos are short. This makes them easier to send to Iranians abroad who can share the posts beyond the reach of Iranian controls.
The hashtag refers to Mahsa Amini, the young woman whose death sparked the civil disobedience still sweeping across Iran. The 22-year-old was killed after being detained by officials who claimed she wore her hijab (head covering) “improperly”.
Exclusive data from TalkWalker, a social analytics company, reveals that #MahsaAmini has been posted at least 65.1 million times across the internet since her death in mid-September. Her name in Persian, #مهسا_امینی, has been posted at least 305.5 million times.
The protests in Iran have gone truly global, with #MahsaAmini being posted a million times in the UK alone since her death.
TalkWalker’s data also shows that 93% of those posting about #MahsaAmini and #مهسا_امینی around the world and just in Iran are between the ages of 18 and 34.
This shows that not only are the protests on the ground being led by young people, this same demographic has been waging a war with the regime online.
Iran’s young online army is potentially substantial. Some 48 million people out of Iran’s 85 million population are on social media. Many of those online are young – 60% of the country’s population are under the age of 30.
Mona Tajali, author and associate professor of international relations and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Agnes Scott College, told Sky News that while Iranian women have continually protested since the 1979 revolution, this younger generation are “more savvy” with social media.
“The reason why we have #MahsaAmini everywhere is it started from a female journalist [Niloufar Hamedi]… She went to the hospital, took pictures of her and put it on social media once she died. This is all quite intentional. It didn’t happen by accident,” she says.
Dr Babak Rahimi, an academic who co-edited a book on social media in Iran, warns this tactic is risky.
“It is extremely challenging. The minute you post something about an event happening on social media, the government also sees it.
“Their social media surveillance has increasingly become more sophisticated since [the civil unrest in] 2009.”
The protests have been heavily policed, with demonstrators being beaten in the street and detained. At least 144 men, women and children have been killed by Iran’s security forces between 19 September and 3 October, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
Those filming and uploading videos are aware of the dangers. The majority of the videos seen by Sky News are heavily blurred to hide people’s faces or people are deliberately filmed from behind.
There is little access to other digital tools used by reporters. Street-level views available on Google Maps and Mapillary, which are used to help confirm locations, are underpopulated in Iran.
The areas with highlights in blue and green below show where street view is possible. Where the map is unmarked it means there is no street view.
Despite these limitations, many of the videos are verifiable and give us information.
In the seven-second video, the filmer appears to be one of the young women making up this crowd of protesters next to the distinctive Shiraz University building in the south of Iran.
Headscarves are being waved in the air, women are clapping and shouting loudly, while others hold up homemade signs.
A woman near our video-maker is also recording. As she lifts her phone in its bright yellow case up in the air, we see the frames of her sunglasses glinting in the sunlight.
The glasses serve the same purpose as her COVID-19 mask: they are not worn to protect her health, but to protect her identity.
She’s not alone in this – a number of women in the crowd have taken measures to hide their faces.
These women and the Iranian people at large know what they are doing is dangerous but they are prepared to take the risk – both on the street and online.
Azadeh Pourzand, a human rights researcher at SOAS University of London, explains that Mahsa Amini’s death struck a chord with many in Iran.
She says the Morality Police, who first stopped Amini, stop large numbers of young women.
“It was so easy to relate to for an average Iranian woman. You did not have to be an activist. You did not have to be a dissident. All you needed to be was an Iranian woman,” she says.
“That’s what’s sparked it but people have lost patience.
“They want to see change in their lifetime.
“Women are at the center but this is not only by women for women. It’s also by women and the people for political change.”
Additional reporting by Kieran Devine, digital investigations journalist
Tea Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyze and visualize data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.