Deep fakes: satirical images of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared online when rumours spread he might stand again in 2021. Image via Instagram

Iran: the ironic republic

Restricted in public, Iranians are taking to the internet to express dissent—and make dark jokes
December 7, 2020

On 7th November 2020, just hours after the announcement that Joe Biden had officially won the US presidential election, Iran’s First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri retweeted a meme on Twitter. The meme uses a short video clip from an Iranian state television show in which a man—labelled “Islamic Republic”—is publicly unmoved by some news, but once behind closed doors, he punches the air in delight. (The retweet was quickly removed.) Many Iranians, apparently including members of the Hassan Rouhani cabinet, hope that sanctions will ease up with the incoming Biden administration and thus alleviate of some of the country’s economic suffering.

Jahangiri isn’t the only Iranian taking to the internet. Since the 2009 post-election protests which are known as the Green Movement, the Islamic Republic has blocked social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook and YouTube—even though Iranian officials continue to use them. But that hasn’t stopped ordinary Iranians from using technology like virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass censorship and share jokes and memes, often in a spirit of dissent. These days criticism masked under the guise of humour is not just circulated on social media but also on family WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels and Instagram, which has yet to be blocked.

Even the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been exempt from dark humour, though Iran has had the highest death toll and cases of infections in the Middle East. In the first weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, viral videos emerged of doctors and nurses dancing in personal protective equipment, despite a ban on public dancing. Many jokes featured the Chinese bat that apparently started it all.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been the frequent butt of jokes since he appeared on the political scene. “Do you know what caused cholera in Tehran? Ahmadinejad finally took a bath and washed his socks in the Karaj river,” went one of the many jokes circulating via texts during an outbreak of the disease in 2005. When rumours spread that Ahmadinejad may run in the 2021 presidential elections, Iranians responded by making “deep fake” images of him, such as one with his head on the body of Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, from Game of Thrones. Some made fun of the ex-president by producing deep fakes of him as raunchy pop star Nicki Minaj, or a Victoria’s Secret model strutting down the runway. (Ahmadinejad himself is an enthusiastic tweeter—though the social media platform was blocked under his presidency—usually commenting in support of social justice causes in the west, earning him the nickname “Wokemadinejad”). 

Social media is also used to poke fun at Iran’s dire economic situation. When the Iranian rial hit an all-time low against the US dollar in September, one Iranian joked on Twitter about the dread of having to pay to replace a broken home appliance: “Dear God, I beg of your greatness and glory, keep our electronic appliances under your protection!” 

As well as domestic critique, Iranians are also using social media to correct the portrayal of their nation by foreign countries. As with all major television series and movies, Iranians were quick to get their hands on bootlegged copies of Israeli espionage series Tehran. Mocking inconsistencies in the show, one Iranian pointed out that the millions of rials paid to police as a bribe in one scene look like a couple of bills, rather than the thick wad of cash it would be in real life. 

As well as an outlet for satire and humorous dissent, social media can also be used as a tool of serious political protest. In July, when a court upheld the death sentence for three protesters involved in the November 2019 demonstrations provoked by a sudden hike in the price of fuel, Iranians took to Instagram and Twitter to call on the government to stop its executions, using the hashtag #DontExecute in Persian.

Within days, after over 4.5m tweets from Iranians across the globe, the authorities halted the executions. Such campaigns are not always successful, however. In September, despite a similar hashtag campaign to stop the execution of Navid Afkari, a wrestler accused of killing a security guard during a protest, his death sentence was still carried out. 

In November 2019, the government went as far as shutting down the entire internet. That measure provided security forces the cover to kill at least 300 protesters and arrest thousands. For a week, the government managed to keep Iran in a complete online blackout, costing the country’s economy $1.5bn. 

There are plans for a Chinese-style “great firewall” to permanently stop online dissent. But even if the Iranian government were to permanently cut Iranians off from the internet, citizens would likely be able to find a way around it—and make some dark jokes too.