The digital wing of Iran’s protest movement has surged in activity in response to recent executions in the country, as protests on the ground persist but in lower numbers than before.
Iran’s cyber protesters have issued a resounding call for the world to recognise Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guard as “terrorists”, with #IRGCterrorists posted more than 2.7 million times for two days in a row.
Their action isn’t limited to the online world. They also organised a large protest on Monday outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg calling for international action against the Iranian regime, reportedly one of the largest international protests seen since the start of the ongoing demonstrations.
It comes as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she backed listing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation to respond to the “trampling” of “fundamental human rights” in the country.
The protest in France was held ahead of Tuesday’s 40th day commemorations of the first Iranian protester publicly executed by the regime during what has become known as the Mahsa Amini protests (named after the woman whose death sparked the ongoing demonstrations).
Iranian security forces were seen guarding the grave of Mohsen Shekari in an attempt to prevent people gathering there in his memory.
A banner memorialising his execution was hung over one of the main roads in Tehran.
It showed Shekari with his feet tied and a noose around his neck. Footage captures the moment the canvas was dropped from the bridge.
Videos shared online, such as the ones above, are among the main sources of information the outside world has on what is happening in Iran because of press restrictions.
Demonstrators have been risking their safety to record evidence of the protests while an army of Iranians living abroad have amplified this content on social media using hashtags.
One of the most significant hashtags recently used by digital protesters is #IRGCterrorists. It began going viral on 9 January when it was tweeted 323,808 times, according to data gathered by Sky News from the social listening company Talkwalker.
This appears to have been in response to the executions of two protesters on 7 January.
The hashtag has gained momentum since then: It was posted around 2.7 million times on both 15 and 16 January in the wake of the execution of British-Iranian national Alireza Akbari on 14 January.
It had previously been used in posts criticising the IRGC, a wing of the regime responsible for carrying out the violent crackdown on protesters, but not to this scale.
Another phrase, “We Iranians”, surged on 12 January, overtaking how many times it was posted at the start of the protest movement.
The increase in these posts on Twitter, one of the main social media platforms used by Iran’s digital protesters, appears to have been an organised effort.
“We Iranians request the people of #Ukraine, Syria and any other country who were hurt and oppressed by #IRGCterrorists to join the rally on January 16 in Strasbourg, France. #MahsaAmini” has been posted word-for-word by a number of accounts since 12 January.”
The most popular hashtag remains #MahsaAmini, the name of the 22-year-old woman who died after being detained by police who claimed she was wearing her head covering “improperly”.
At its peak, the hashtag was posted in English and in Persian a combined 28.1 million times on 23 September last year.
#MashaAmini has been posted on Twitter more than 4 million times over the last seven days, with #مهسا_امینی posted 8.4 million times in the same period.
Social media posts like these have proven powerful during the protests.
Two German politicians who are using their Twitter accounts to advocate for two imprisoned Iranians (Armita Abbasi and Mohammad Boroghani) spoke to Sky News to explain why posting online is so important.
Carmen Wegge said: “I think it’s effective. We see that the awareness of the people in Iran and outside, everywhere in the world is affecting the trials in Iran.
“There are cases where they don’t face the death penalty anymore.”
Her colleague, Martin Diedenhofen, added: “Social media is connecting protesters to each other and social media is connecting protesters to us, to members of parliament in the entire world.
“It helps to draw attention to the Iranian protests and helps to put pressure on the Iranian regime.”
This surge in online protest comes as action on the ground has slowed over the past six weeks, with no protests being recorded on 11 and 12 of January by the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War.
Sky News has mapped the location of every protest made up of 12 or more people since 16 September using their data. The organisation is limited by what evidence it is able to find on protests, and as internet controls continue to limit information emerging from the country, this may have an impact on their data.
There are sporadic spikes in the number of on-the-ground protests, for example 16 protests were registered by the CTP on 8 January.
As angry protesters persist in their action, the devastated family and friends of protesters who have been killed continue to mourn at funerals and to mark the 40th day since the person died (a significant event in Iranian culture).
On Monday, video from the 40th commemoration of Hooman Abdullahi, a 21-year-old Sanandaj resident who human rights groups say was shot and killed by government forces in December show his loved ones mourning at his grave.
His parents released two birds in what this post describes as “as a symbol of freedom” in memory of their son.
A huge crowd braved the cold weather to stand in solidarity with the family. Hengaw, a Norway-based human rights group focused on Iran, report the men and women are chanting “Kurdistan, Kurdistan, the graveyard of fascism” as they hold red and black balloons and thrust roses into the sky.
In the four months since the protests began, HRANA, another human rights group, estimate some 524 protesters have been killed – each one leaving behind family and friends like Hooman Abdullahi.
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