Tehran, Iran – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made headlines last week when he made a late night appearance on Clubhouse, the increasingly popular mobile group audio chat app.
Even though hours after the conversation began he said it was past bedtime, the country’s top diplomat stayed longer to discuss issues ranging from the recent controversial 25-year cooperation agreement between Iran and China, to his nuclear deal with world powers, to again denying he has aspirations to become president, to his bedtime routine.
The virtual room in which he was speaking soon reached 8,000 attendees – the maximum number allowed at the moment – and included several other officials, journalists and Iranians living inside and outside the country.
Days later, Iran’s 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. United States, was over.
They have been among an array of senior officials, presidential candidates and figures from different Iranian political backgrounds to use Clubhouse as a platform to make their voices heard by supporters and opponents alike.
Rooms like this, and others, in which Iranians also openly discussed politics, technology, internet freedoms – or lack thereof – and played live music, among other things, brought with them a sense of novelty.
In the online debate over the use of Clubhouse in Iran, which only intensified after Zarif joined, some said the app bolstered 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 proponents of a different type of government find themselves in the same room – so to speak – with senior civil servants, trying to portray a different, less formal side of themselves. 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 faked from the start.
Besides the moderator – a local journalist – in the room where Zarif was speaking, a handful of journalists outside Iran were allowed to ask questions, which some deemed too soft.
After Zarif left, the moderator admitted that reporters from Farsi-language media outside Iran were not allowed to ask questions as a precondition for discussion.
Gissou Nia, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said those conditions mean Clubhouse rooms featuring Iranian officials hardly differ from state media interviews where officials answer vetted questions from vetted reporters.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the Clubhouse rooms featuring Islamic Republic officials as promoting democracy,” she told Al Jazeera.
Mahsa Alimardani, an internet history student and internet researcher for UK human rights organization ARTICLE19, said the discourse on technology leading to democracy has died down since Iran’s green movement of 2009 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 unveiled and refuted many times since the early 2010s,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Although Clubhouse may give the impression of a democratic exchange, it is very much controlled and used by politicians as they wish.”
Politics and beyond
The upcoming presidential elections in June have had a direct impact on the buzz around Clubhouse in Iran, with most online and media discussion around the platform finding a connection to the elections.
The stakes are high for the ballot, with the next president potentially shaping the course of the country’s nuclear deal with world powers, among other issues.
The February 2020 parliamentary elections – which ushered in the current hardline-dominated parliament – showed that the authorities must use all the tools at their disposal to attract voters, as just over 40% of voters turned out 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, cross-platform Viber had gained popularity. In the years since, Telegram and Instagram have dominated while Whatsapp is widely used. Telegram was blocked in 2018 after nationwide protests.
The recent rise of the instant messaging app Signal led to its rapid blocking by Iranian authorities.
Beyond the potential use of Clubhouse as a tool to achieve political gains, Nia of the Atlantic Council said the platform holds more promise in terms of how it can be used by an Iranian audience. wider to discuss important issues and freely express their opinions.
“There are rooms on the application debating what governance in Iran should look like, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of participants from inside Iran, and that’s valuable,” a- she declared.
She also said she has visited rooms where Iranians discuss a wide range of non-political issues, such as how they first fell in love or what their favorite foods are.
A 30-year-old Clubhouse user from Tehran who asked to remain anonymous said he had been using the platform as both a listener and a speaker since late January.
Last month he listened to a room where he said frank discussions were taking place – with information and communications technology minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi also present – on the so-called ‘national network’. information,” a state project that officials say is intended to boost the local internet, but many fear it will limit the global internet.
“I found it interesting that the executives of a company accused of helping the state restrict internet access were publicly questioned about it,” he said.
“Clubhouse definitely has room to grow and provides an exciting opportunity for a new experience…but I also don’t think its capabilities and scale should be overstated.”
Risks and Challenges
The platform can also pose security issues for its users, an issue that observers say needs to be addressed.
For example, despite anonymous names, people registered in users’ contact lists will be notified when users create an account.
ARTICLE19’s Alimardani said this could be dangerous anywhere in the world for privacy reasons, but especially in Iran, where phone numbers are recorded on national ID cards.
“It is possible that the government will automate processes to identify and monitor users, even if they use anonymous names,” she said.
Clubhouse did not respond to an Al Jazeera request for comment.
Additionally, Clubhouse is currently an invite-only app exclusive to iOS, which rules out many users.
But an unofficial Android version available on Iranian app stores has already been downloaded more than 50,000 times. Even the Minister of Foreign Affairs 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 apps are currently blocked in Iran except Instagram, which has become a popular platform for conducting 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 tough US sanctions and has been further impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many have suggested that the only reason Clubhouse remains unblocked is because of its effectiveness in the run-up to the presidential election.
Earlier this year, users inside Iran reported problems receiving SMS confirmation when trying to sign up for Clubhouse, an issue that appeared to stem from local telecom operators. 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 it to be filtered, a request also taken up by several other local media.
Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said on Tuesday “no decision has been made” regarding the blocking of Clubhouse, but did not rule out the possibility.