women’s rights in iran For months, the groups have been facing a flood of bots that stalk their Instagram accounts and disrupt their digital outreach operations. Activists say that while they have repeatedly asked Meta, the parent company of Instagram, to stop the proliferation of spammy followers, more followers are emerging, totaling millions across dozens of groups operating in Iran and elsewhere around the world.
The targeted bot campaign has gained thousands of new followers in just one day as the Iranian government grapples with widespread dissent focused on a range of pressing social issues, including economic hardship. Women’s rights activists say they have faced a particularly harsh government crackdown in recent months, with some being watched by law enforcement and arrested. As the National Day of hijab and chastity loomed last Tuesday, women across the country took part in the #No2Hijab movement, pushing their hijab back to reveal their hair, or taking it off entirely. Authorities label participants “bad women in hijabs.”
Through it all, Instagram has been an important communication platform for feminist organizers, as it is one of the few accessible and uncensored international platforms in Iran’s tightly controlled digital environment.
“There are now more and more people against wearing the hijab; it’s unprecedented and I think the government is feeling the threat from the feminist movement,” said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, executive director of Iran-based United Group, which faces bot attacks on its Instagram page one of the organizations. “So, in my opinion, it is absolutely no coincidence that anything is happening with these bots that are systematically bought to target Instagram pages. We have seen about 30 women’s rights groups inside Iran and 40 women’s rights groups abroad in this way be the target.”
The bot activity is in the Iranian regime’s interest, but the actors behind it have yet to be identified. These attacks are subtle in some ways because they don’t involve mass malicious comments or attempts to delete entire pages. Instead, activists say, their Instagram pages — which typically have just a few thousand followers — suddenly grew by tens of thousands within a few hours. New follower accounts appear to be named using long, systematic strings of incomprehensible consonants and numbers. In one example, Mahmoudi said the United for Iran page jumped from an average of around 27,000 followers to 70,000 overnight. Similar stories have been shared by other activists, whose accounts gained tens of thousands of followers in a few hours in recent weeks, then gained and lost thousands again and again after that.
These huge spikes and fluctuations skew admin metrics, making it difficult to determine whether their posts and stories are attracting legitimate followers. Activists also point out that bot accounts individually report specific posts to Instagram as abusive, allowing them to be mistakenly removed.
“It’s not consistent, but it hasn’t stopped since April,” said Shaghayegh Norouzi, founder of Me_Too_Movement_Iran. “For example, if we were dealing with reports of sexual assault by people close to the government, we would get a lot of falsehoods. Followers. Over 100,000 fake accounts have been added to our public accounts in the past 10 days. They have repeatedly reported our posts, so Instagram has removed our posts. These attacks have particularly affected our ability to spread information and communicate with needs The women we help and the representation of minority engagement.”