Social media has provided oppressed Iranians the ability to organize and protest, but now the Iranian regime wants to take that ability away from their people by replacing those apps with versions they can censor at will.
There was no single coordinating body which directed thousands to protest in cities across Iran over the past week. No grand advertising campaign was necessary, nor was some covert plan. The only thing Iranians really needed was a simple app called Telegram, used by more than half the population already. By sharing videos, messages and other pieces of information over the encrypted app, protesters took to the streets in the protest equivalent of a split second.
"It was cyberspace that was kindling the fire of the battle," said Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a leading cleric and leading member of the influential Assembly of Experts, in a speech while leading Friday prayers in the Iranian capital of Tehran. "It was cyberspace that every moment said where protesters were gathering, and what slogans they were chanting."
The Iranian regime has seen the power of social media before. The last time a protest of this magnitude took place was in 2009, when Iranians took to the streets was after the results of the presidential election in 2009. The effort heavily leveraged social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Both platforms were banned shortly after, but not before the regime took a massive hit. Khatami wants to make sure that does not happen again.
"We support a cyberspace whose key is in the hands of the (ruling) system. I'm saying this on behalf of the people: the nation does not support a cyberspace which America holds the key to," said Khatami. He claimed that the protesters are not the voice of the Iranian people, but instead of President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Such conspiratorial accusations have been thrown around by many hardliners inside the government since the protests began. And though both Trump and Netanyahu have expressed public support for them, there is not proof that the protests were a product of foreign orchestration.
Banning social media outright hasn't worked terribly well for the regime in the past. Iranians are on average very young and tech savvy. As many as 46 million of them have Telegram alone. Owning the latest and greatest smart phone is a point of pride, despite the country's poor economic situation. And while Twitter and Facebook are still technically banned, many Iranians still find ways to use them. Ironically, both the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have Twitter accounts.
Khatami instead wants to replace the supposedly tainted Western platforms with Iranian ones, ostensibly so the government can shut down a threat before it grows.
"As you saw, when cyberspace was closed and limited, the sedition subsided," Khatami told the audience.
The regime began blocking access to social media platforms, and even the Internet as a whole, on December 31. Counter-protests supporting the regime were also seen across the country in recent days, drawing crowds in the thousands.
Several other countries have blocked social media, such as China and North Korea. But as technology continues to advance and become more available, it may be difficult for the regime to keep up.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.