How the WhatsApp, Instagram blackout is impacting millions of Iranians

On the left: In this WhatsApp post, an Iranian complains about two internet companies in Iran: "Since 4pm, my Irancell internet connection has been cut and this is my connection with Raitell.” The photo on the right shows a router indicating that there is no internet connection.
On the left: In this WhatsApp post, an Iranian complains about two internet companies in Iran: "Since 4pm, my Irancell internet connection has been cut and this is my connection with Raitell.” The photo on the right shows a router indicating that there is no internet connection. © Observers

The Iranian government shut down Instagram and WhatsApp and drastically reduced internet speed on September 21 in response to nationwide protests. This has not only greatly restricted Iranians' access to information but it has also limited millions of Iranians' business activities. Three of our Observers explain how these restrictions have affected their daily lives and how they are still managing, sometimes, to get around them.  

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"The reason for blocking [Instagram and WhatsApp] is the wickedness and the malicious activities that the enemies promote on it,” Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, who himself has a verified Instagram account, said on December 7, 2022.

In other words, the two social networks were banned because people used them to share photos and information about the protests that have rocked Iran since September 16 following Mahsi Amini's death while in police custody.

Instagram and WhatsApp are just the latest networks to be banned – the government has blocked Facebook, Twitter and Telegram for years. 

More than 43 million Iranians, or 50% of adults in the country, use Instagram, according to estimates. More than 61 million Iranians, or 71% of the population, use WhatsApp.

'I get videos of the protests a week later'

Mamlekateh (not his real name) is an Iranian activist. For more than ten years, he’s used social media to share information, news and images of protests with his fellow Iranians. He explained how the new restrictions have made it even harder to cover the news. 

Aside from general censorship and national-level blackouts, there are also local and regional blackouts. For example, when people protested in Semirom, Izeh and Mahabad, the internet was suddenly cut in these towns. In the past, computer nerds in these towns were usually able to find a way to connect and to send me news and photos but, this time, even the smartest people weren’t able to get around the blackouts because they literally cut the service, no more internet. 

"I’ve been wanting to send a video for days but I can’t. If you know a good VPN, could you give me the name and I’ll send you the videos,” reads this message sent to Mamlekateh on January 11.
"I’ve been wanting to send a video for days but I can’t. If you know a good VPN, could you give me the name and I’ll send you the videos,” reads this message sent to Mamlekateh on January 11. © mamlekate

I get a lot of messages like: “I filmed this about X days ago, but I could only send it now.” And I don’t know how many messages I get per day that say: "I tried to send you a video all day, but it wasn’t possible.” 

When there were protests in a town in the Kurdish region, I only got videos about a week later when someone from the town left the region and was finally able to connect to the internet. 

And it is not just the videos. Sometimes it’s impossible to even get any information about what is happening in these towns for several days. Once, I got a message from an unknown person who said: “People send things to you from all across Iran, can you tell me where the internet is best, I will move there, my life has been ruined, I can’t work without internet.” 

"For two weeks, we had a curfew in Semiron. There were soldiers everywhere and we didn’t have internet access…” reads this message sent to Mamlekateh from Semirom, a town in southwestern Iran, where many people have been protesting the government.
"For two weeks, we had a curfew in Semiron. There were soldiers everywhere and we didn’t have internet access…” reads this message sent to Mamlekateh from Semirom, a town in southwestern Iran, where many people have been protesting the government. © mamlekate

Starlink scams

Another consequence of the internet blackouts is that scams have abounded – many of them revolving around Starlink, a project launched by the company SpaceX that hopes to provide people all around the world with internet through a constellation of satellites, thus bypassing local services. However, according to the head of SpaceX, Elon Musk, there are only 100 Starlink receptors active in Iran. Mamlekateh says: 

I’ve seen a number of Starlink scams recently. There are scammers who ask people, who have practically no access to the internet, for large amounts of money and promise to sell them Starlink receptors. But when the victims transfer their money, the scammers disappear. 

'It’s like we are living 20 years in the past'

Ravi (not his real name) is a middle-aged man who owns his own company. In the past, people often turned to VPNs, software that enables you to access the internet through a private connection, making the information shared invisible to the government. However, Ravi says in the current climate, this isn’t enough. 

Our lives have been turned upside down since they banned certain sites and reduced internet speed.

I have nine different VPNs on my telephone and, every day, I have to see which one is working. Sometimes, one of them works with my 4G but not with my wifi or vice versa.

It can take me hours every day to connect to Instagram to see what is happening in the country or to get onto WhatsApp to see what my friends and my family sent me. I also need WhatsApp to manage my business.

The first thing that we discuss with friends, family or colleagues is who has found a new VPN and how to download it because all of the anti-proxy sites like Google Play and Apple App Store are now blocked. 

Lots of people are trying to connect to Instagram using VPNs, but because of decreased internet speed, lots of photos and videos won’t load at all, as shown by these screengrabs.
Lots of people are trying to connect to Instagram using VPNs, but because of decreased internet speed, lots of photos and videos won’t load at all, as shown by these screengrabs. © Observers

'Watching a two-minute video could take more than 15 minutes'

 

When that happens, we have to find a friend who has a functioning VPN and then that friend will share their internet with us so that we can download the VPN and then become independent again. But that said, even when we do connect, it is extremely frustrating. Watching a two-minute video could take more than 15 minutes. 

A lot of photos or videos on Instagram or WhatsApp just won’t load. I don’t even try to watch a video that is longer than two minutes, that ends up being impossible.

'We’ve had to lay off a dozen people'

The other consequences of the internet restrictions are economic. Instagram and WhatsApp, especially, have become the backbone of thousands of small businesses in Iran. Ravi explains: 

In my business, we tend to send and receive invoices and receipts via WhatsApp. We also send and receive photos and videos of product samples using WhatsApp. It’s like we are living 20 years in the past. We now have to send and receive these images using a flashdrive, which can take hours. We often receive orders on Instagram, as well. All of that has gone to dust now.

We’ve had to lay off a dozen people over the past four months and I think we will have to lay off even more people in the coming months because we just aren’t getting enough orders. People don’t have money to buy things and those who do have money don’t feel like shopping, which makes sense.

'A three-billion-euro economy was reduced to ashes in a day'

Irandokht (not her real name) is an expert who studies social economy. She explained how the WhatsApp and Instagram blackouts have left thousands of Iranian families without jobs or income. 

According to a number of studies carried out in Iran over the past two years, the revenue of businesses conducted on social media (primarily Instagram, WhatsApp and Telegram) totals between 1.2 and 3.3 billion euros a year. That’s huge. Despite what a lot of people think, the majority of this market is made up of small businesses – usually just one or two people selling their products or services on Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Many of these people who make their living on social media live in small towns or villages or rural areas. They might sell handmade products or crafts or produce from their farm. There are even fishermen who sell their fish online and all of these people have lost their revenues. 

But this has also impacted businesses in the big cities. Cafés and restaurants advertised online. And many shops sold their wares online, from jewelry and accessories to make up and clothes. There are dozens of startups that depend on social networks to run. And there are thousands of Iranians who work indirectly on social media, as well, like editors, photographers and video editors. They all lost their jobs. A three-billion-euro economy was reduced to ashes in a day.

 

More than 1.7 million businesses operate on Instagram in Iran, and the incomes of more than nine million Iranians depend on this social network, according to a study carried out in Iran in 2021. The loss of revenues and jobs from the internet blackout has made the situation even worse for those already grappling with the country's economic crisis