In the wake of heightened tensions between Iran and the United States, triggered by the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, social media companies are facing pressure to heavily monitor their platforms, but they seem unsure about where to draw the line.
Most prominently, Facebook-owned Instagram has been removing a slew of posts that mention Soleimani. As Coda Story noted last week, the company seems to be deleting posts from media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has been labeled a foreign terrorist organization by the US and faces sanctions.
Instagram, which removed Soleimani’s account last year, is one of the only Western social media services not blocked by the government in Iran. The takedowns have reached high-profile users like Iranian soccer player Alireza Jahanbakhsh, CNN notes.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company complies with sanctions by actively removing posts that express support for American-designated terrorist organizations and their leaders.
“We review content against our policies and our obligations to US sanctions laws, and specifically those related to the US government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership as a terrorist organization,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
But even critics of the IRGC, like human rights advocate Emadeddin Baghi, seem to have had posts removed. (Baghi’s were later restored by Instagram.) The company is now facing criticism from groups like the International Federation of Journalists, which said in a statement that 15 Iranian journalists have had content removed from their accounts. The group slammed Instagram’s actions, saying they go “against global standard principles including freedom of speech and media.”
Despite Instagram’s interpretation of the US sanctions, it’s not clear that they would actually apply to voicing support for Soleimani on social media. Jillian C. York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director for International Freedom of Expression, wrote on Twitter that Instagram was “legally wrong” in its view of the law. Still, the company appears to be erring on the side of caution, rather than face stiff penalties for violating sanctions.
Instagram isn’t alone in trying, and possibly stretching too far, in an attempt to comply with US sanctions. Over the weekend, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation noted that two recent fundraising campaigns for passengers on the Ukrainian flight brought down by Iranian missiles had been removed, only to later be reinstated. The two campaigns, from the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton and an Iranian-Canadian, were meant to raise funds within Canada, so seemingly would not intersect with sanctions.
A GoFundMe spokesperson said in a statement that “in some rare cases, US or Canadian sanctions will prohibit us from supporting specific campaigns.”
“In cases where sanctioned countries are involved, campaigns must comply with all relevant laws in the countries in which we operate, they must have a transparent delivery plan, and abide by our terms of service,” the spokesperson said. “Occasionally in the wake of crises like the tragic plane crash, we require additional information from campaign organizers to ensure funds go to the right place.”
While recent news has put the focus on Iran, it’s hardly the first time tech companies have mounted a zealous response to sanctions. Last year, GitHub restricted users in several countries under US sanctions.
Iran, which has faced sanctions for years, has regularly had tech companies limit use in the country in response to US policy. In 2018, Slack deactivated accounts around the world that were tied to Iran, in a move that stretched well beyond the borders of the country. Apple took several popular Iranian apps off its store in 2017 in the face of US sanctions. At the time, Apple issued a statement that’s still relevant: “This area of law is complex and constantly changing.”
Update, 5:19PM ET: Includes note that Baghi’s posts were later restored.