Congress is investigating the Meta social media network for censoring Iranian dissidents and pro-democracy advocates amid a wave of protests against Tehran’s hardline government, according to a copy of the probe exclusively obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Three Republican lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees want information about what steps Meta has "taken to confront infiltration by proponents of the Islamic Republic of Iran" following reports the social media giant is deleting and censoring accounts tied to anti-regime activists. The lawmakers—Reps. Jim Banks (Ind.), Claudia Tenney (N.Y.), and Joe Wilson (S.C.)—also want to know if Meta is investigating claims that Instagram, the video sharing app owned by the company, has "been infiltrated by those sympathetic to the Islamic Republic in Iran."
The probe comes on the heels of reports alleging that Instagram content moderators are deleting and censoring accounts that have documented the regime’s human rights abuses during the latest wave of protests. Those affected claim that Instagram is removing content showing Iranian security forces beating protesters and firing tear gas into crowds.
Social media is a vehicle for anti-regime activists to document the government’s crimes and galvanize international support for their movement. The Iranian government severely restricts internet access to prevent this information from becoming public. Banks and his colleagues say the notion that Meta is helping the Iranian government censor this content represents "an unacceptable threat to their privacy, liberty, and our national security."
Cameron Khansarinia, policy director at the National Union for Democracy in Iran, an Iranian-American organization that supports democracy, said social media is critical to the Iranian protest movement.
"Iranian protesters are fighting a multifront war: first and foremost against regime thugs on the street firing live ammunition, but also against the silence of the international community and mainstream media," Khansarinia said. "In this war, social media has been one of their few available tools. Now, not only is it filtered, banned, or entirely blocked by the Islamic Republic, but the companies that tell us they ‘build technologies that help people connect’ are apparently infiltrated by agents of brutal dictatorships looking to make those technologies disconnect and silence freedom movements."
While Iranian activists have long accused social networks like Facebook and Instagram of amplifying Iranian regime propaganda, the latest reports indicate the company may have outsourced its content moderation to regime agents.
Instagram reportedly enlisted a third-party company, Telus International, to police the network’s content. Telus International is alleged to have "been infiltrated by those sympathetic to the Islamic Republic in Iran," according to the lawmakers, citing a BBC Persian report.
Whistleblowers inside Telus International claim the Iranian government offered them between 5,000 and 10,000 euros to delete and censor accounts documenting protests and the regime’s use of violence. Accounts belonging to Iranian dissidents and American citizens were impacted by these bribes while pro-regime content remained online, according to the BBC.
This report confirms "the long-held view of many human rights advocates, pro-democracy activists, and dissidents, that the dictatorship in Tehran is actively manipulating the social media space," Banks and his colleagues write in their letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "Direct infiltration of Instagram’s internal processes, however, is far more sinister than even the shadow-banning, bot-creation, and other manipulation that have been troubling Iranian pro-democracy activists for years."
The lawmakers are requesting Meta provide them with information about any steps the company is taking to investigate these claims.
This includes information detailing what mechanisms are in place to prevent foreign governments like Iran from infiltrating Meta’s platforms. They also want to know if Instagram or Telus International has launched an internal investigation to substantiate the BBC’s claims.
"Specifically on Iran, what steps has Meta taken to confront infiltration by proponents of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a state sponsor of terrorism under U.S. law and has a track record of trying to spoof social media accounts for political purposes?" they ask.
The lawmakers also want Meta to detail the steps it is taking to ensure that private user data has not fallen into the Iranian government’s hands.
A Meta spokesman said reports about Telus International’s pro-regime bias are inaccurate and that the firm is not connected to the Iranian government.
"We see no evidence to support these claims. Our review teams remove content that breaks our rules. Those rules are deliberately detailed to avoid room for bias or interpretation, and reviewers’ decisions are regularly audited to help ensure accuracy," the spokesman said. "Recent audits of our Persian-speaking reviewers—based on random samples—in Essen have shown high levels of accuracy and are consistent with our results across other review sites and other languages."
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert who has been tracking the growing protest movement, said confirmation of Meta’s censorship "would constitute a damaging blow to free speech as well as a win for those who outlaw free expression and look to curate an alternate reality of life in authoritarian regimes."
Congress should consider applying pressure to Meta, "as the matter touches everything from free speech to private enterprise to the tech world and last but not least, the national security debate involving Iran," Taleblu said.
Update June 9, 12:17 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Meta.