How Shifts on Instagram Drove Iran's 'Mahsa Moment'

28 Dec 2022

How Shifts on Instagram Drove Iran's 'Mahsa Moment'

By Abolfazl Hajizadegan

December 28, 2022

This article was originally published in Persian.

In a narrative crafted by various political and intellectual currents, the “Iranian Instagram” is often presented as a means of depoliticising the attitudes and behaviours of the Iranian people, with its users engaging in vulgar content, falling for false news and claims, cursing at famous figures, and morbidly posting accounts of the more attractive sides of their daily lives. This same formulation is used by the conservative movement (also called the Principalists movement) to realise their policy of "organisation" and "protection" of the Internet. Using comparable language, pro-change political currents also direct users to ostensibly more political platforms, such as Twitter and Clubhouse. However, if this is the case, why has Instagram become one of the most prominent platforms for expressing and even organising political protests in the “Mahsa Moment?”

The simplest and shortest response to this question is to attribute everything that has occurred over the past two to three months to the Islamic Republic's enemies. This response has been heard repeatedly on official domestic media in recent months. Some of the self-proclaimed leaders of the people's protests in the media outside of Iran have given the same answer in different words, claiming that these events are the result of their years of hard work and meticulous planning. This type of analysis of people's collective actions is not only unenlightening and ineffectual but is a significant contributor to the current crisis.

However, another approach might be to temporarily set aside preconceived notions about online social networks in favour of a more empirically grounded and scientifically sound approach to answering this question. A portion of the answer to this question can be found by analysing the changing trends on Iranian Instagram.

Those of you who have been following along for the past three years may recall that I began a longitudinal study of Iranian Instagram in 2019 and have since published an analytical update three times in the early fall of 2019, 2020, and 2021. This year, data collection and analysis took longer than usual due to Internet filtering and interruptions, delaying the report preparation for the fourth phase of this research.

With these explanations, the findings of the fourth consecutive year of this research will be presented within the context of the question posed at the beginning of the report. The findings of this study demonstrate that the transformation of the Iranian Instagram space at the “Mahsa Moment” into a platform for online protests and the organisation of offline protests cannot be attributed to a pre-planned project. Rather, we must understand and analyse this phenomenon in light of the agency of users and the gradual changes that have occurred on Instagram in Iran over the past few years. In addition, despite tightening restrictions over the past year, Iranian Instagram continues on its path, both quantitatively and qualitatively, consistent with the previously optimistic changes.

Figure 1 depicts the frequency of active popular Iranian Instagram pages between 2019 and 2022. Despite the tightening of various restrictions facing Iranian users on Instagram, the number of active Iranian pages on Instagram with more than 500,000 followers increased by 17% in 2022, reaching 2,654.

Figure 1: Frequency of active Iranian Instagram pages with over 500k followers from 2019 to 2022

As displayed in Table 1, the share of "humour and entertainment", "fashion and beauty", and "pornography" pages among the most popular Iranian Instagram pages has decreased significantly over the past year. While the decline in "fashion and beauty" and "pornography" pages continues a longer trend, the declining ratio of "humour and entertainment" pages on Iranian Instagram over the past year is something new. In contrast, the percentage of "educational" and "business" Instagram pages has continued to rise in 2022.

The appearance of "tourism" and "emotional" pages on popular Iranian Instagram pages in 2022 is another notable change. On the tourism pages, content pertaining to tourism in various regions of Iran and the world is published, whereas, on the emotional pages, content that represents human feelings and emotions are published.

Table 1: Share of popular pages by primary subject from 2019 to 2022





The trend of changes in the network of relationships between popular Iranian Instagram pages is illustrated in Figure 2 using the Indegree Index. When comparing the changing trend of the graphs from 2019 to 2022, we observe that education (dark blue), business (brown), lifestyle (orange), and fashion and beauty (pink) pages have become increasingly integrated within their respective fields and have distanced themselves from other fields. In the upper portion of the graphs, from 2019 to 2022, we notice an increase in the intertwining of sports screens (pale blue), movies (green), and music (red). In other words, these three types of popular accounts—also known as "celebrity” accounts—have gradually shaped a field that is related to issues outside of their profession. In this multifaceted field, in addition to celebrity pages, there are humour, entertainment, political, and social pages (yellow, black, and grey).


Figure 2: Changes in the network of relationships between popular Iranian Instagram pages from 2019 to 2022, as measured by the Indegree Index





Figure 3 displays the ten Iranian Instagram influencers with the highest authority based on the Authority index. All of these individuals belong to one of the three categories: sports, film, or music. These three categories also overlap. Moreover, with the exception of two individuals, the rest post additional content on the page related to their audience's political, economic, and social concerns and demands, as well as their profession and area of expertise. Let us refer to this type of celebrity as a "celebrity-activist.”


By a significant margin, Ali Karimi has the highest authority among the most popular Iranian Instagram pages, followed by Ali Daei, Golshifteh Farahani, Javad Ezzati, Amir Jafari, Bahram Afshari, Mahnaz Afshar, Majid Salehi, Parviz Parastui, and Reza Sadeghi.

Figure 3: Network relations between popular Iranian Instagram pages in 2022, as per the Authority Index