Tehran, Iran – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made headlines last week when he made a late-night appearance on Clubhouse, the increasingly popular group audio chat mobile app.
Even though hours after the conversation began, he said bedtime had passed, the country’s top diplomat stayed longer to discuss issues ranging from Iran’s recent controversial 25-year cooperation agreement with China, to its nuclear agreement with the world powers, through the refusal of aspirations to become president, to its bedtime routine.
The virtual room in which he was speaking quickly reached 8,000 participants – the maximum number allowed at the moment – and included several other officials, journalists and Iranians living inside and outside the country.
Days later, Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi was in another room, where he said a stalemate over the nuclear deal was breaking as talks in Vienna continued and a “childish” debate over who should return to full compliance first, Iran or the United States. States, it was over.
They have been part of a range of senior officials, presidential candidates and figures from different sides of the Iranian political spectrum to use Clubhouse as a platform to have their voices heard by supporters and opponents.
Venues like this, and others, in which Iranians have also openly discussed politics, technology, internet freedoms – or lack thereof – and played live music among other things, have brought with it they have a feeling of novelty.
In the online debate over using the Clubhouse in Iran, which only intensified after Zarif’s arrival, some said the app bolsters democracy in the country – where a theocratic establishment is in power. since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
After all, it’s not every day that supporters of a different type of government find themselves in the same room – so to speak – as senior officials, who try to present a different and less formal aspect of them. themselves.
“ Refuted utopian vision ”
Some also draw comparisons to Twitter’s beginnings more than a decade ago, when it was touted as a tool for freedom and the fight against oppression.
However, some argue that many of these conversations are rigged from the start.
Aside from the moderator – a local journalist – in the room where Zarif spoke, a handful of journalists outside Iran were allowed to ask questions, which some deemed too soft.
After Zarif left, the moderator admitted that journalists in Farsi-language media outside Iran were prohibited from asking questions as a precondition for discussion.
Gissou Nia, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council, said these conditions meant Clubhouse rooms featuring Iranian officials were little different from interviews with state media where officials answer questions endorsed by reporters. approved.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the Clubhouse rooms featuring officials from the Islamic Republic as promoting democracy,” she told Al Jazeera.
Mahsa Alimardani, internet history student and internet researcher at UK human rights organization ARTICLE19, said the talk about technology leading to democracy has run out since the 2009 Iranian Green Movement and the Arab Spring .
“Basically, the stock market has proven to us that no, technologies never create democracies. The utopian vision of technology and the Internet has been repeatedly unwrapped and refuted since the early 2010s, ”she told Al Jazeera.
“While the Clubhouse can give the impression of a democratic exchange, it is very controlled and used by politicians as they see fit.”
Politics and beyond
The upcoming presidential elections in June had a direct impact on the buzz around the Clubhouse in Iran, with most discussions online and in the media around the platform finding a connection to the elections.
The stakes are high for the poll, with the next president having the potential to shape the course of the country’s nuclear deal with world powers, among others.
The February 2020 legislative elections – which inaugurated the current hard-line-dominated parliament – showed that the authorities must use all the tools at their disposal to attract voters, as just over 40% of voters surrendered. at the polls, the lowest turnout since the revolution.
The recent elections in Iran have seen various social media tools gain popularity. In 2009, Facebook and Twitter in Iran were used to share opinions on voting. Authorities said they were tools of sedition and blocked access. By 2013, the cross-platform Viber had gained popularity. In the years since, Telegram and Instagram have been dominant while Whatsapp is widely used. Telegram was blocked in 2018 after nationwide protests.
The recent sharp rise in the Signal instant messaging app led to its rapid blocking by Iranian authorities.
Beyond the potential use of Clubhouse as a tool to achieve political gains, Nia from the Atlantic Council said the platform holds more promise when it comes to how it can be used by an Iranian audience. wider to discuss important issues and freely express their opinions.
“There are rooms on the app debating what governance in Iran should look like, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of participants from inside Iran, and that’s valuable,” he said. she declared.
She also said she was in rooms where Iranians discussed a wide range of non-political issues, such as how they first fell in love or what their favorite dishes are.
A 30-year-old Clubhouse user from Tehran, who requested to remain anonymous, said he has been using the platform both as a listener and as a speaker since the end of January.
Last month he listened to a room where he said frank discussions had taken place – with Minister of Information and Communication Technologies Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi also present – on the so-called “National Network information, ”a state plan that officials say is supposed to boost the local internet, but many fear limiting the global internet.
“I found it interesting that the executives of a company accused of helping the state restrict Internet access were publicly informed,” he said.
“Clubhouse certainly has room to grow and offers an exciting opportunity for a new experience… but I don’t think its capabilities and scale should be overstated either.”
Risks and challenges
The platform can also pose security concerns for its users, an issue that observers say needs to be addressed.
For example, despite the anonymous names, people registered in users’ contact lists will be notified when users create an account.
ARTICLE19’s Alimardani said it could be dangerous anywhere in the world for privacy reasons, but especially in Iran, where phone numbers are recorded on national ID cards.
“The government has the potential to automate the processes of identifying and monitoring users, even if they use anonymous names,” she said.
Clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
Additionally, Clubhouse is currently an invite-only app exclusive to iOS, which excludes many users.
But an unofficial version of Android available on Iranian app stores has already been downloaded more than 50,000 times. Even the foreign minister said he downloaded this version to join the conversation.
Meanwhile, the app could potentially be targeted by Iranian censors in the future.
All social media applications are currently blocked in Iran except Instagram, which has become a popular platform for doing business online. Its ubiquity means authorities are reluctant to shut it down due to the potential economic impact of such a move, as the country remains under severe US sanctions and has suffered yet another blow from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many have suggested that the only reason Clubhouse remains unblocked is its effectiveness in the run-up to presidential elections.
Earlier this year, users in Iran reported problems receiving SMS confirmation when trying to sign up for the Clubhouse, an issue that appeared to be coming from local telecommunications carriers. The issue was resolved as soon as high-level officials flocked to the platform.
But that doesn’t mean the platform is loved by everyone. The ultra-conservative daily Keyhan called for his screening, a request which was also echoed by a number of other local media outlets.
Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said on Tuesday “no decision has been taken” regarding the blockade of the Clubhouse, but did not rule out the possibility.