Traditionally, Iran’s clerics communicate to the public via Friday prayers and staid television talk shows.
But Friday’s presidential poll in Iran has been preceded by a flurry of social media activity by some candidates, among them, Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric in the race.
“We need to give our ppl #confidence so they can participate in our country’s affairs… we need to distance ourselves from #extremism,” tweeted @HassanRouhani, the official twitter handle of the popular presidential candidate and the former chief nuclear negotiator.
Jalili is trying to enhance his stature by generating a sense of his inevitability within the international media, which in turn would help him at home where he was less well-known than most of his rivals.
In a country that heavily suppressed Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms after the 2009 protests, these mediums have strangely become a useful tool by the candidates themselves, even though the platforms are formally blocked in the country.
Indeed, in Iran, even email accounts are watched.
Google announced on Wednesday that it had uncovered an Iranian spying ring targeting the email accounts of thousands of people in the country. Still, some manage to use Gmail – Google’s e-mail service – as well as Twitter and Facebook.
To access these platforms, Iranians have to employ virtual private networks (VPNs) or use applications designed to hide IP addresses, typically known as “deep web” browsing.
According to a 2012 RAND study, users tweeted #IranElection “at a rate of about 30 tweets per minute in the days immediately following the  election” and Facebook released a version of their entire site in Farsi “to accommodate the volume of news and information shared on Facebook”. Yet in the following days, the government effectively outlawed social media.
Because candidates operate on a severely limited budget and a very restricted timeframe, they are now increasingly relying on social media as a primary tool to disseminate information about their policies, campaign rallies and values.
The RAND report said that over a third of the population used the internet, and mobile phone subscriptions hover at around 72 out of every 100 people. However, having access to social media does not mean Iranians can use it.
Owing to the fact that Iran uses only one public internet service provider (ISP), the government has been able to dramatically slow bandwidth speeds as an effort to delay messages meant for organising large-scale protests.
Despite sluggish internet speeds, digital communication inside the country is prevalent.
At Rohani’s campaign rallies, mobile phones are commonplace, something the campaign has used to its advantage by setting up a targeted SMS system.
“Our SMS system has a base of millions of people,” said Amir Hossein Mottaghi, Rouhani’s campaign media manager.
“If we have a rally in a certain province, then we will send an SMS to those people who only live in that area; if we hold a press conference, we will send a text only to journalists… our targeted groups range from 200 to millions of people.”
Traditionally, the country’s social media users are students, intelligentsia and progressives, but this election has seen even hardliners seek online visibility, with all candidates present and accounted for on social media. Some, such as Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, tweet only in Farsi, others, such as Ali Akbar Velayati, only seem to use the platform to see what others are saying about them, but not tweeting anything out at all.
— Saeed Jalili (@DrSaeedJalili) June 9, 2013
“Supporters of the current right-wing government, conservative and religious Iranians, and even the security forces also use social media to disseminate ideas, and mobilise support,” stated the RAND report.
Rouhani’s campaign manager, Mohammed Reza Nematzadeh, believes a primarily digital strategy is the only way forward – and that paper fliers and traditional campaigning are relics of the past. Additionally, these digital media provide a cost-effective avenue for outreach.
Another candidate with a prolific online network, Saeed Jalili, an arch-conservative and Iran’s current chief nuclear negotiator, uses his digital profile to defend Iran’s stance on nuclear negotiations and cultural policies.
What is somewhat surprising is the fact that both Rouhani and Jalili also tweet in English – a move seen as either a way to reach out to the West or to the Iranian expat community, which can vote in the presidential elections.
“Jalili is trying to enhance his stature by generating a sense of his inevitability within the international media, which, in turn, would help him at home where he was less well-known than most of his rivals,” Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera.
“Rouhani’s strategy is somewhat different – he clearly intended to present himself as the rightful heir to the reform movement, and tweeting in English offered a way to enhance his bonafides in these areas well as reach out to the diaspora,” said Maloney.
Small Media, a new media research firm based in the UK, has created a number of election monitoring reports whose methodology focuses on Farsi-language Facebook and Twitter posts about the candidates, with most of the posts coming from within Iran.
Their analysis breaks down each candidate’s popularity – how often that candidate is tweeted about – and favourability – how many tweets about that candidate is positive, negative, or sarcastic.
According to Mahmood Enayat, the firm’s executive director, Jalili can boast the most structured digital network and has “a very developed organisation of bloggers” at his disposal, where many of Ahmedinjad’s former blogger community have taken up his cause.
Jalili has boasted on Twitter that he has a network of more than 1,200 bloggers.
But ever since the televised debates, online discussions have centred on Rouhani.
The largest volume of tweets from, “ordinary Iranians focus on Rouhani’s performance and platforms… [which show that] he has the support of the middle class,” said Enayat.
In an ironic twist, the candidates are beginning to understand the difficulties of tackling censorship of their own prohibited platforms and many of their posts are often subject to scathing criticisms and sarcastic comments.
User @amirazad_ quipped: “Given the fact that Jalili’s academic expertise is on international relations during the early years of Islam, I think the first thing on his agenda as president of Iran should be to build a moat around Iran.”
The jab did not go unnoticed, and according to a Small Media report, the tweet was widely shared.
Jalili has also been the target of saltier tweets, with people lobbing insults directly in response to his campaign’s messages. This open forum is unique for Iranian political discourse – it is an uncensorable space, one which neither Jalili’s campaign, nor the Islamic republic, can control.
Communicating with foreign media
Although Rouhani tends to receive a favourable response on Twitter, he is frequently criticised for his past record, which is more conservative than the reformist face of his campaign. For example @allMightymate tweeted to him: “When did you become a reformist?”
Ever since Rouhani registered to become a candidate, he has promoted progressive policies – both in person and in the digital domain. He frequently calls for equal pay for women, freeing political prisoners and opening up dialogue with the West.
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) June 5, 2013
“Like most of the political establishment of the Islamic Republic, he has routinely indulged in radical rhetoric to criticise Israel,” said Maloney.
“But he has also been one of the most fierce and vocal critics of the economic and foreign policies of current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani is considered a pragmatic conservative, close to former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has himself been embraced in recent years by the reform movement despite prior frictions,” explained Maloney.
However, the former nuclear negotiator “has never been seen as a part of the pro-reform movement prior to his candidacy”, said Enayat. But because of his close association with Rasfanjani, “he is now seen as the reform candidate, only because of his electability and his ability to push back.”
Unlike the other candidates, his account has tweeted directly at reporters and has retweeted messages from major media outlets, including Al Jazeera English and our reporters.
His method of tweeting to the outside world, especially about controversial matters such as the pardoning of Mehdi Karroubi, one of two 2009 presidential candidates currently under house arrest, suggests that he is willing to allow open, participatory democracy.
Jalili’s and Rouhani’s social media strategies also employ heavy integration with their other platforms. Jalili’s Twitter account often links to his Instagram handle and unofficial facebook page.
What’s clear is that verboten or not, social media is part of Iran’s constantly changing political landscape.
What was once a tool used for anti-establishment purposes has now been embraced by senior officials themselves. Censorship remains high, but it remains to be seen if these small openings revive the mass communications of anti-government dissidents.
Additional reporting by Soraya Lennie in Tehran.