The videos are as horrifying as they are powerful. A daughter kneels in her mother’s grave, saying farewell for the final time after she was shot dead while protesting. In another, crowds of protesters flee along a train station platform after facing police gunfire; a different clip shows officials beating a woman on the floor outside a shopping center. A father created a video montage of his activist son who has been frequently arrested and imprisoned.  

The videos—all linked to Iran’s anti-government protests—have all been posted to Twitter. They’ve been shared thousands of times and viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. However, they are just a small snapshot of the Twitter posts coming out of Iran, as the social media platform has played an important role in documenting the brutality faced by protesters.

Every day for the past two months, countless Iranians have taken to the streets in more than 150 cities to protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” after they arrested her for not wearing a hijab in public. Protesters have called for greater women’s rights and regime change in Iran. As they have done so, they have been met with increasing violence from Iranian forces. According to the Human Rights Activists’ News Agency (HRANA), more than 450 protestors have been killed, including 64 children. More than 18,000 people have been arrested, the organization says.

Twitter—and social media in general—has been awash in videos appearing to show protesters being attacked by police forces, the bodies of those killed, and people’s injuries. For more than a decade, the social network, now owned by Elon Musk, has been used as a way to document protests and human rights abuses around the world. However, as Musk’s chaotic takeover unravels and key safety teams have been cut, the Iranian protests put fresh light on Twitter’s importance as a platform for information sharing and chronicling events globally.

Twitter has made it possible for the world to see attacks on protesters and revealed the horror of those killed. And in a country where the media is tightly controlled by the government, it provides a lifeline for Iranians to access impartial information. “There is the power of Twitter in terms of how effective it is when Iranians themselves are getting online to express their messages directly to the world,” says Mahsa Alimardani, an academic at the Oxford Internet Institute and senior researcher at digital rights group Article 19 who has studied Iran’s internet controls. “Every day I see a new family member of a political prisoner coming online on Twitter to directly start advocating for their kids.”

Internet experts and others monitoring the protests are concerned that Musk’s takeover of Twitter will damage a key platform for protest and activism at a time when internet freedoms are being curtailed.

A Lifeline and a Megaphone

For the past decade, Iran has created tools to shut down the internet and block social media platforms. While it has blocked Twitter on and off since 2009, the country’s censorship tools have become increasingly sophisticated. In 2019, it shut down the entire internet as people rallied against rising fuel prices. During the protests following Amini’s death, Iran has targeted its internet controls: Digital curfews have been in place, and WhatsApp, Instagram, Skype, Viber, and LinkedIn have all been blocked.

“Iran is one of the world’s worst abusers of internet freedom. It ranks down there with China and Russia,” says Cathryn Grothe, a research analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House, a nonprofit that produces an annual report on internet freedom. As a result of the curfews and blocks, there has been a surge in Iranians using virtual private networks and censorship circumvention tools to get online.

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