How BBC Persian Uses Instagram and Telegram to Bypass Iranian Censorship »Nieman Journalism Lab


Last month, a fire ravaged an iconic Tehran skyscraper, killing more than 20 firefighters and injuring 70 others when it collapsed.

The fire made international headlines, but it was a particularly significant story for BBC Persian, the British broadcaster’s Persian-language service that targets Farsi speakers in Iran and neighboring countries.

Covering the story, however, presented a challenge: The Iranian government does not allow Persian BBC journalists into the country, and official news agencies are often unreliable.

BBC Persian therefore turned to another source: Telegram, the most popular messaging app in Iran. (It is estimated that over a quarter of all Iranians are on Telegram.) BBC Persian has over 713,000 subscribers on its channel, but it also has a profile where users can get in touch with BBC Persian. After the fire broke, he asked his followers to share photos and videos of the fire.

“This is the main source of news gathering right now for us,” media editor BBC Persian Leyla Khodabakhshi told me from London. “The only way for us to fundamentally understand what is going on inside the country and to have access to the images was to issue a call to action on different platforms and then to receive the UGC via our telegram”, she said, adding that “many news agencies in Iran have strong ties to different political groups in the country, so you cannot trust what you get from news agencies that operate in the country. inside the country. We always have to check what we are receiving. This is by bringing together different agencies, but also to compare them to what we receive from user-generated content.

The Iranian internet is heavily censored. Facebook, Twitter and most of the major social platforms are blocked. BBC Persian’s website is blocked (and its TV shows are also regularly censored). Even though Iranians regularly use VPNs to bypass government censorship, BBC Persian has turned to platforms such as Telegram which are licensed in the country to report and promote its coverage to a large audience of Iranians.

“This is a social circumvention strategy rather than a social media strategy,” Khodabakhshi said.

BBC Persian’s other main platform in Iran is on Instagram, which is the rare authorized social network in the country.

BBC Persian has a significant following on Facebook and Twitter, but it recently surpassed one million followers on Instagram, where its audience tends to skew women, Khodabakhshi said.

“Part of our Instagram strategy is based on community development. This is where we try to get women to discuss the news on our page, ”she said. “It’s not very straightforward, because it’s not a platform designed for that kind of debate or conversation, but it works for BBC Persian.”

There are of course limitations built into Instagram (it’s hard to share links, for example), and that’s why the Iranian government has decided – at least for now – not to block it, Emad said. Khazraee, professor at Kent. State university that studied social media and news consumption in Iran.

“I believe the Iranian government has consciously left Instagram open because Instagram’s possibilities are very limited,” Khazraee said. “You had a hard time using it for social activism. They then collect them on a platform leaving it accessible while blocking the others. Within Facebook, you have features, such as organizing groups and creating private groups, which you can manage to organize events.

BBC Persian puts most of its top stories on Instagram, Khodabakhshi said. And the account covers a wide range of stories – from Playboy’s decision this week to bring back nude footage to Austria’s ban on full-face veils. He also uses Instagram to reuse and promote the BBC’s Persian TV programs.

But due to the restrictions of the Telegram and Instagram platforms – as well as Iranian censorship – getting users back to the BBC’s own platform isn’t necessarily a priority. Instead, Khodabakhshi said BBC Persian’s goal is to make as much information readily available as possible.

After President Donald Trump issued his executive order last month banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, BBC Persian got to work explaining the ban and its implications on each of its major platforms. .

“We had to chip the information and broadcast it on Telegram so people know what the latest news is and how Iranians are affected by this decree,” Khodabakhshi said. BBC Persian also “viewed and posted it on Instagram without necessarily thinking that we need to have a referral to our website, even though we have a detailed explanation on our website. This is how it works in BBC Persian. We have to serve the public.

Messaging apps are popular among Iranians because they offer more privacy than more traditional social networks, Khazraee said. (But Telegram and other apps are still vulnerable.)

The beauty of messaging apps is that there is no API to get information about system users, ”he said. “The most you can do is crawl all the messages sent through a public channel, but you can’t get a lot of information about who is using those channels. It is difficult for us as researchers because it is extremely difficult to study this environment, but it is extremely effective in terms of preserving user privacy.

BBC Persian approaches Telegram slightly differently from Instagram and other social platforms. Although it does share videos and other features on Telegram, the app’s chat interface helps BBC Persian view Telegram primarily as a late-breaking news tool, Khodabakhshi said. He sends about 20 messages a day.

When articles are published, it posts news to Telegram and then also solicits comments and user-generated content, taking advantage of the less public nature of the apps.

BBC Persian’s Telegram message on the death of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been viewed 2.7 million times, for example. And after Trump’s immigration ban was hastily enacted, BBC Persian asked his Telegram subscribers to share stories about how it affected them. He was then able to share some of these stories with other units in the BBC.

“We received hundreds of messages on Telegram about people trapped somewhere, Iranians who traveled, people who were really concerned about the impact of the decree on their lives. It helped us give our blanket a more human, personal flavor. Not only for BBC Persian, but also for the BBC at large. ”

Telegram and Instagram are popular in Iran for now, but that could change if the government decides to restrict them or if users decide to change their ways. This has happened to BBC Persian before. In 2014, the service planned to launch on the Viber chat app (which the BBC had previously used in other markets), but the government decided to block the platform. Users migrated to other services before en masse deciding to use Telegram, where the BBC finally launched in late 2015.

Ultimately, Khodabakhshi said that BBC Persian is committed to publishing online to reach audiences in Iran, and that it will continue to adapt as platforms and access change in the country.

“We always had to have contingency plans, B plans,” she said. “If they shut down this platform, if they filter this platform – if they block Telegram, for example, all together, what would be our plan B?” We are basically on our guard all the time.

Photo of an Iranian woman on her cell phone in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar by Kamyar Adl used under a Creative Commons license.

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