Main trends

According to the Iranian economic daily Financial Tribune, in September 2018 “major mobile operators Irancell and MCI have revised their pricing procedures making Internet services a bit costlier. Operators usually offered special packages which enabled users to access Internet at relatively low rates. Now they have deleted the affordable packages in a manner that compels users to purchase more expensive services, the news agency Fararu reported. One of the moves that triggered widespread criticism among Internet users was the MCI’s decision to omit all the packages with bandwidth caps of under 5 gigabytes per month with free nightly access.”

Mobile phones and apps are used in different ways. Free voice and video calls applications such as WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram and Skype are widely popular because they offer very low costs of communication by using Internet. However, Iranian authorities monitor and sometimes forbid the use of some apps. This has been the case with Telegram at the end of April 2018. Another popular social media platform is Instagram (24 million users, amongst them 45 percent are women and 55 percent men).

Smartphones are often used to access news from abroad, as well as for social networking and entertainment purposes rather than for professional business issues. Social networks are very popular as well. As of 31 December 2017 the number of Facebook users in Iran was 40 million people, ranking first among MENA countries. However, Facebook and other socials are filtered and monitored by the authorities. As a consequence, posting might cause troubles to users. In summer 2018, for instance, Instagram user Maedeh Hojabri (18 years old) was jailed because of some videos she posted. Iranians are well aware of the risks.

The pages mostly followed by Iranians on Facebook are: Alalam News Channel (6,088,516 fans), PressTV (3,934,465), ManotoTV (3,266,552), the Kurdish singer and dancer Helly Luv (2,899,171), the Iranian singer Arash (2,858,734), VOA Persian (2,520,609), the Iranian singer Ebi (1,454,860), the Iranian singer Shadmehr Aghili (2,296,545), the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (2,145,873), the Pakistani singer and songwriter Quratulain Balouch (2,090,178).

Twitter’s growth in Iran has gone through three different stages: initially it was banned during the protests of 2009, then during the nuclear talks in 2013-15, and finally the ban was partially lifted in 2016. Since then, many Internet services providers (ISPs) have allowed Iranians to access it. Previously, Iranians within Iran could access Twitter only by using virtual private networks (VNPs), which allow to bypass filters. Paradoxically, amongst those who have the largest audience in Iran are the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (1,089,262 followers) and President Hassan Rouhani (799,346). Third comes VOA Persian (790,349).

According to a study conducted in the month ending 18 February 2018 by the Iranian Student Polling Agency (ISPA), when it comes to Internet users, the younger generation (18 to 29 years of age) is the most familiar with the media, with 81 percent of youths using the Internet. The second age group for Internet access is of those aged 12-19 years (67 percent), followed by 30-49 (63 percent) and 50 and up (25 percent). A total of 84 percent of people who hold a university degree actively use social media, while people who hold a high school diploma or have lower education have a participation rate of 44 percent. Among the unmarried population 77 percent of people join social networks, while 55 percent of the married cohort uses them.

Each user spends an average of 72 minutes on social media per day, the source of an article by the Financial Tribune says. ISPA believes the true number to be actually 120 minutes per day for every user. Compared to women, men are 5 percent more active on social networks. The vast majority of users (90.8%) log on to social media websites using smartphones. Computers and laptops are also used by 10% of users and tablets by 4.2%. ISPA is affiliated to the Academic Center for Education, Culture and Research or Jahad Daneshgahi, which in turn is a subsidiary of the non-governmental Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution.

In February 2017, Iranian students developed a new messaging application called Bale (“yes” in Persian), which also allows banking and payment features: Users can perform limited transactions such as paying bills. The financial transactions are said to be supervised by the Central Bank of Iran. The app is designed to resemble popular messaging application Telegram and has similar features such as file sharing, private messaging, creating channels and chat groups as well as searching users based on their names. Released for Android and iOs, Bale was available for download on App Store and Google Play until April 2017, when it was removed from the App Store. Local apps developed and released in Iran, some with state funding, have not been able to replace or even compete with foreign applications such as Telegram and Whatsapp in terms of popularity.