In the Iranian city of Shahrud, surrounded by hundreds of protesters, two women climb onto a platform and defiantly wave their hijabs above their heads in an act of public defiance. The scene, caught on video, is posted online by the 1500tasvir Instagram account. In recent days, the account has published dozens of videos from Iranian towns and cities as thousands of people protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested by Iran’s “morality police.”
In another video shared by 1500tasvir, women burn their headscarves while chanting for freedom. Protesters are shown confronting police officers in another. And other videos claim to show people bleeding, injured, or dead, following brutal clashes with police officers as protests have spread to more than 80 cities across Iran. “They stood against the police, who are armed, and they [protesters] just shout at them,” says one person behind the 1500tasvir Instagram account, whom WIRED is not naming to protect their safety.
The 1500tasvir account was set up in 2019 following widespread protests in which hundreds of people were killed by police. During those protests, Iranian officials totally shut down the internet, stopping people from organizing protests and limiting the information flowing in and out of Iran. Now history is repeating itself. But this time, more people are watching.
As thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the death of Amini this week, Iranian officials have repeatedly shut down mobile internet connections and disrupted the services of Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the most popular social media services in the country. The internet shutdowns are the largest since November 2019 and raise fears about further atrocities. So far, more than 30 people have reportedly been killed, while the Iranian government has admitted to 17 deaths.
“Shutting down mobile internet service has become a go-to for the Iranian government when dealing with civil unrest,” says Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at monitoring firm Kentik, who has been following the shutdowns. “People were using these services to share videos of the protests and the government’s crackdown, so they became targets of government censorship.”
Iran started shutting the internet down on September 19 as protests around Amini’s death gained momentum. Since then, multiple internet-monitoring organizations, including Kentik, Netblocks, Cloudflare, and the Open Observatory of Network Interference, have documented the disruptions. Mobile network operators, including the country’s biggest providers—Irancell, Rightel, and MCI—have faced rolling blackouts, the groups say. Multiple mobile providers have lost connectivity for around 12 hours at a time, with Netblocks saying it has seen a “curfew-style pattern of disruptions.” Felicia Anthonio, who leads NGO Access Now’s fight against internet shutdowns, says the group’s partners have reported that text messages containing Amini’s name have been blocked. “If you’re sending a message containing that name, it doesn’t go through,” Anthonio says.
The clampdown against Instagram and WhatsApp started on September 21. While shutting down mobile connections is hugely disruptive, blocking access to WhatsApp and Instagram cuts off some of the only remaining social media services in Iran. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been banned for years. State-backed Iranian media said it was unclear how long the blocks on Instagram and WhatsApp would last but that they had been imposed for “national security” reasons. “It does seem they are targeting these platforms that are the lifeline for information and communication that’s keeping the protests alive,” says Mahsa Alimardani, an academic at the Oxford Internet Institute who has extensively studied Iran’s internet shutdowns and controls.
The 1500tasvir team member says the account, which is run by a group of around 10 core people both inside and outside of Iran, is posting videos to document the protests. People on the ground send the videos—in some areas, patchy connections are available and fixed Wi-Fi connections still work—and the group checks the content before posting it online. The group says it is receiving more than 1,000 videos per day, and its Instagram account has more than 450,000 followers.
Internet shutdowns can have a “huge” impact on protests, the 1500tasvir team member says, because when people around Iran can’t see that others are protesting, they may be likely to stop themselves. “When you … see other people feel the same way, you get more brave. You are more enthusiastic to do something about it,” they say. “When the internet is cut off … you feel alone.”
The blocks against WhatsApp also appear to have impacted people outside of Iran. People using Iranian +98 telephone numbers have complained that WhatsApp has been slow to work or not functioning at all. WhatsApp has denied it is doing anything to block Iranian phone numbers. However, the Meta-owned company has refused to provide any more information on why +98 numbers outside of Iran have faced problems. “There’s something strange going on, and it’s likely to do with the way Iran is implementing censorship on these different platforms because it does seem a bit more targeted,” Alimardani says.
In recent years, governments wanting to silence their citizens or control their behavior have increasingly turned to draconian internet shutdowns as tools of suppression. In 2021, 23 countries, from Cuba to Bangladesh, shut the internet down a collective 182 times. Iranian officials are no strangers to the practice. Anthonio says Iran’s latest internet shutdown is the third time the country has disrupted the internet in the past 12 months. “We continue to see that internet shutdowns also provide a cover for authorities to hide atrocities that are perpetrated against people during protests,” Anthonio says.
Iran’s current shutdown is the biggest since its November 2019 protests, when people took to the streets over drastic fuel price rises. More than 200,000 protesters were faced with a brutal response from the police: Amnesty International has documented the names of 321 people who were killed during the protests, but the NGO says the figure is likely far higher. (Previous estimates say up to 1,500 people were killed and 4,800 were injured.)
Throughout those protests, Iranian officials conducted a complete internet blackout. All internet connections were blocked, preventing people from telling the world what was happening. (The country’s home-brewed, heavily censored, intranet remained available.) So far, the internet shutdowns following Amini’s death haven’t reached the same scale. However, experts worry they may continue to grow the longer the protests last. That could also mean an increase in police violence. The Center for Human Rights in Iran says it has already recorded 36 deaths linked to the protests, including 15- and 16-year-old boys.
Despite the internet shutdowns, footage from the protests has managed to get out. So far. “I’m seeing more content and more footage from these protests than I think I even saw during November 2019,” Alimardani says. However, when the internet is disconnected everything can go silent. “I don’t get any messages in the past hour. Because they cut off the internet,” the 1500tasvir member, who is based outside of Iran, says in a phone call. “They don’t want the world to know how cruel they are.”