Clubhouse, one of the few social media sites for Iranians ahead of the poll |
Tehran – As Iran prepares for a presidential election, people from all political backgrounds are turning to the Clubhouse audio app as a rare forum for debate inside the country.
Chat rooms are popping up on the invitation-only social media platform every day, some of them attracting thousands of listeners.
Politicians from opposing factions have found their way to the app, along with an array of analysts, journalists and Iranians both at home and abroad.
“The main asset of the Clubhouse is that it has created an opportunity for dialogue between people who could not stand talking to each other before,” said Farid Modaresi, an analyst close to the moderate camp of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani.
The hot topic on their lips was the hopes that have arisen and registered to run for the presidential election on June 18.
Modaresi said a combination of factors helped make the app popular among Iranians, including small national media, the Covid-19 pandemic and a large diaspora keen to benefit from the talks.
“There was a demand, and this is the supply,” Modaresi said, noting that conservatives and reformists are present on the platform.
Those hoping to run for president began tossing their names in the hat on Tuesday, starting the battle to succeed Rouhani who is due to step down after serving two consecutive terms.
The fervor of the Clubhouse contrasts with a rather calm public sphere ahead of the official campaign which begins on May 28.
Reform journalist Mostafa Faghihi said the app helped open “multilateral dialogue” in Iran.
Such public discourse has been elusive in the country due to the conduct of “media giants with public budgets … which have turned into one-sided and factional forums.”
– Senior officials –
Alongside Instagram, Clubhouse is one of the few major social media apps still widely accessible in Iran without the need for virtual private network (VPN) software to bypass censorship.
Eshaq Jahangiri, Rohani’s first vice president and seen as a potential candidate, was one of the most senior officials to appear on the platform.
Responding to questions, he steadfastly defended the administration’s track record in the face of an American “economic war,” saying it defends internet freedoms and denied ties to one of his brothers on trial for alleged corruption.
Faghihi said the presence of prominent figures on Clubhouse could play “a very important role” in conveying messages to voters.
He praised the “nearly 110,000” people who logged into a chat room that hosted Faeze Hashemi, the outspoken daughter of late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
“I will not vote, because our maximum effort results in (someone like) M. Rouhani! she said during the debate.
When the room reached the maximum number of listeners, several more were created to allow more to hear the discussion, before it was broadcast live to thousands more on Instagram and Twitter, Faghihi explained. .
Still, Iranian Clubhouse moderators have come under fire for not allowing all voices to be heard.
One such case occurred when Modaresi invited social media-savvy Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to a discussion of the controversial 25-year deal between Iran and China, its nuclear deal with world powers and his declared intention not to run for president.
As the panel took shape, it emerged that the chat room featured both Iranian officials and foreign-based Persian media reporters deemed hostile by the Islamic Republic.
Modaresi said they were not allowed to ask questions “due to Foreign Ministry protocols” he had to agree to.
– “Not a threat” –
Clubhouse has mainly drawn criticism from ultraconservatives over its lack of content oversight and the usual worry about being hosted abroad, with some calling for domestic alternatives.
In an April editorial, the ultra-conservative Tasnim news agency said Iran’s enemies could cause “security, social and political problems” to the country via Clubhouse.
He cautioned against the app’s potential to “identify elite, networks, tracking, data theft, large-scale information leaks” and break the taboo of “direct talks” with hostile media.
Later that month, Clubhouse was temporarily blocked without explanation on most networks, and despite assurances from Rouhani’s administration, the app was inaccessible on at least one major mobile operator.
This has raised concerns that it could suffer the same fate as other officially banned social media in Iran, including Facebook and Twitter.
But for the Iranian conservative-dominated Guardian Council, charged with validating parliamentary legislation and monitoring elections, the candidacy did not appear to be a threat.
In an interview with AFP, council spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaee said the influential body viewed the Clubhouse as potentially constructive as long as no “crime” was committed.
“In my opinion, cyberspace can play a positive role, so that people have better and faster access to information. Clubhouse is no different ”from other social media, he said on May 5.