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29 Jun 2022

Front Line Defenders, 29 June 2022

Front Line Defenders, Article 19 & others human rights organizations urge Meta to protect Iranian women's rights defenders

"Statement - Iran: Meta Must Protect the Iranian #MeToo Movement", 29 June 2022

A wide network of Iranian women’s rights defenders, feminist activists and public figures, —who are part of Iran’s #MeToo movement and in the diaspora— have come under coordinated attacks from bots and trolls on Instagram in an effort to stifle their freedom of expression and damage their online presence and influence. The huge numbers of fake followers flooding their accounts are part of a sustained, paid campaign.

ARTICLE 19, Access Now, United for Iran and Front Line Defenders urge Meta, Instagram’s parent company, to immediately investigate and eliminate these fake followers and do more to protect the free expression of these human rights defenders, activists and individuals.

As the last uncensored social media platform in Iran, Instagram has established itself as a crucial online space for Iranians to exercise their rights to access information and freedom of expression. Our organisations have systematically documented the significant harms and challenges with content moderation for the Persian language and the Iranian community on this vital platform.

The campaign targeting various Iranian women’s rights defenders and feminist Instagram accounts have most notably used the tactic of inundating the accounts with thousands of fake new followers since May 2022. The fake followers seem to be either bots or trolls. Research by digital forensics and security organisation Qurium has traced these fake followers to companies paid to generate the followers based in Pakistan.

This campaign is essentially drowning out the real engagement and outreach these accounts previously had. This is a deeply worrying new method mobilised against a network of women's rights groups, who have been subject to state-backed and societal reprisal to their successful campaigns against sexual abuse, most recently within the cinema industry.

So far Meta has been slow to investigate this problem, even though these fake followers violate Meta’s inauthentic behaviour policy.

Our organisations urge Meta to prioritise its investigations and hold these paid-for troll farms accountable. We are deeply worried by their potential for being hired by actors associated with states such as the Islamic Republic of Iran who would benefit from stifling the voices of these women’s rights defenders.

These fake followers must be investigated and removed. Meta must act swiftly to stop the harms inflicted on Iranian women’s rights defenders, and urgently ensure the protection of their freedom of expression on the platform.