Social media in Iran: the local control, the global aspirations
Iran is the largest country in the Middle East in terms of population. Needless to say, it is also among the biggest Internet countries in the whole area: there are around 25 million people connected in Iran, and the Internet penetration is second only to Israel, among the MENA countries.
It’s widely known that the Government has implemented a strong Internet censorship over the last years (particularly after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005), and Reporters Without Borders included Iran among the 12 “Enemies of the Internet”.
Despite that, the Iranian population is very active online, and the country will represent a huge opportunity for global marketers in the next future.
Let’s see why, with the help of a few more numbers.
Internet in Iran: more than 25 million users
Iran is the biggest Persian-speaking country in the world – a language spoken by over 110 million people across Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan – which makes Persian ranking among the top 15 most spoken languages online globally (source: W3Techs).
The country has an Internet population ranging from 20 to 25 million users, depending on the source. Which means that out of a total population of 77 million people, Internet is used by 26% (source: World Bank, 2012) to 32% (source: Reporters Without Borders) of Iranians.
Some sources report even bigger numbers: up to 45 million Internet users, according to the Iran Republic News Agency.
The government has been constantly looking for new ways to block and control the internet; social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are officially blocked, and temporary blocks have been applied to Google properties like Gmail and Youtube.
Here is the waring sign saying “Access to this site is denied” that appears today while accessing Facebook from Iran:
Reporters Without Borders sum up the situation this way:
“While most Iranians get their news from television, the Internet plays a key role in circulating news and information thanks to dissidents and independent news providers. The authorities often accuse social networks of being tools in the pay of Western powers that are plotting against the government (SNS are defined as “evil”). The Iranian Internet is not more politicized than in other countries, but it is definitely more closely watched.”
Yet something is changing: in March 2014 Iran’s Culture Minister Ali Janati stated that millions of people in Iran are using social networks, and bans should be removed:
“We cannot restrict the advance of [such technology] under the pretext of protecting Islamic values” (source: ZDNet)
And after the recent change in the relationships between the US and Iran, with less tight restrictions, the Google developer community officially announced the access to the Google Play store to Iranian citizens, as reported on The Washington Post.
Mehr, Cloob, and the government-friendly sites
There are several social media sites and digital platforms that can be used without restrictions by Iranian netizens, as the Government’s aim in the last decade has been to create an entire digital ecosystem approved by the authorities – dubbed “Halal Internet”, which translates into ”Our own Internet”.
Foreign websites that are not regularly accessible often have their own local versions, specifically created and controlled by Iranian officials. As an example, the website persianbbc.ir offers “approved” and “moderated” news previously published on BBC (source: Reporters Without Borders).
In 2012 the video-sharing platform Mehr.ir has been launched, in order to compete with then-blocked Youtube. Mehr is a platform where users can upload locally-produced short films, and get access to pictures, music files and videos uploaded by government-approved sources.
Cloob is the biggest Persian online community, used by people in Iran and Iranians across the world: launched in 2004, it became popular after Google’s Orkut was blocked in the country. Cloob allows users to chat, create discussion boards and upload personal information, such as the resume; the website says that all the content is controlled by the government.
The (real) numbers of Facebook in Iran
Officially there are no Facebook users in Iran, as the website is (or should be) technically not accessible in the country. In fact, the Facebook advertising system don’t allow the targeting of Iranian users.
Yet in March 2014 the Culture Minister of Iran stated that there are over four million people using Facebook in Iran. And counting, since the website is accessible through VPN services, and used by many especially in the Tehran area.
As strange as it might sound, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif has a quite frequently updated Facebook page, counting over 850 thousand fans. It’s all in Persian:
And interactions are pretty huge: here is Zarif complimenting the national Freestyle Wrestling team for having defeated the US team during the World Cup in Los Angeles:
Even though it’s hard to track real traffic, we can have a look at Facebook pages communicating to Iranian audiences. Iran Wire is a digital news source in Persian, sharing on Facebook news from all around the world. Iran Artists خانه هنرمندان is the page of a Tehran-based art space, which organise local exhibits about graphic art and video art:
Iran has been included by Goldman Sachs among the Next Eleven, the 11 economies (BRICs excluded) that will possibly enter the world’s top largest economies worldwide over the course of 21st Century. As it often happens, Internet numbers are a mirror of it.
Even for what concerns the luxury market: today the Iranian audience often counts among the biggest local fan bases of international high-end brands. A quick example: 2% of all Lamborghini’s Facebook fans (135 thousand people) are from Iran (source: Social Bakers); the same can be said for brands such as Gucci (1.5% of the fans from Iran) and Official Versace (3% of the fans from Iran).
The apparently silent (yet extremely fast-growing) rise of Internet usage in Iran will change for sure the game inside the Middle East digital scenario, and will have a strong relevance at the global level too.