This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.
The continued use of Twitter and Instagram by senior Iranian officials sanctioned by the Trump administration in recent months has put U.S. authorities and social media executives in a predicament.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been posting content frequently on both U.S. social media platforms since the Treasury Department added them to its Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) list in June and July, respectively.
“Here you have an administration that’s trying to press hard on the Iranian regime, but they are not able to take down the foreign minister’s access to U.S.-made social content tools,” said former State Department counterterrorism official Jason Blazakis, who now heads a counterterrorism center at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. “I think they are in a difficult spot in terms of how to deal with Silicon Valley,” Blazakis added in a VOA Persian interview.
U.S. President Donald Trump cited the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) of 1977 in issuing his June executive order prohibiting the provision of “services” to Khamenei and anyone else deemed to be acting on behalf of the Iranian supreme leader, a designation later applied to Zarif.
But IEEPA also protects the rights of Americans to exchange information with sanctioned foreigners, provided those exchanges do not involve a “transfer of anything of value,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Amendments to IEEPA in 1988 and 1994 said such protected exchanges encompass information in a variety of media formats.
There are no similar protections for information exchanges in section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that authorizes U.S. designations of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as an FTO in April, prompting Instagram to remove the account of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani the next day.
It is unlawful for Americans to knowingly provide “material support or resources” to a designated FTO. The Trump administration says the term includes “any … service, including … communications equipment.”
In an April statement to U.S. media, Instagram said it “operate(s) under the constraints of U.S. sanctions laws … (and) work(s) with appropriate government authorities to ensure we meet our legal obligations, including those relating to the recent designation of the IRGC.” It made no mention of specific accounts.
Instagram, a Facebook subsidiary, and Twitter declined to comment about what they might do with Zarif’s account when contacted by VOA Persian last month.
Typically, it takes U.S. social media companies more than just one day to act in response to a sanctions designation, said a former employee of several U.S. tech firms.
“There’s this assumption that if sanctions are placed against somebody, it’s a pretty quick process to make a decision,” said the former employee, who spoke to VOA Persian on condition of anonymity. “The fact of the matter is, there are a couple of things that add complexity.”
“It could take a while for the proper government agency to notify companies (of new sanctions), and it’s questionable that those companies need to be notified in the first place. So companies may start taking action only after they become aware of things,” the former employee said.
U.S. social media companies also need to identify any accounts run by sanctioned individuals, a process that the former employee said is made harder if those accounts are not verified.
“There could be several dozen accounts that have similar names or purport to be whoever the accounts claim they belong to,” the former employee said. “Companies don’t want to take down accounts that shouldn’t be impacted by sanctions, so this stuff could take weeks to figure out, and sometimes months.”
Once the relevant accounts are identified, the former employee said tech companies try to determine whether sanctioned individuals used the accounts in ways that violate their rules on user behavior.
“Has the account engaged in hate speech, violent threats or harassment? If so, that account could be removed simply on a company policy violation and not because of a sanction,” the former employee added.
If there is no violation of company rules by a designated person, the former employee said social media companies have to study the law under which the person was sanctioned to determine how they must act.
A former U.S. official who has dealt with social media companies said some people believe the information exchanges permitted by IEEPA make it permissible for their platforms to host content from sanctioned individuals.
“But it’s important to note that there is no definitive answer,” said the official who asked not to be named. “IEEPA came about in 1977, so it never took into consideration social media as a medium of transmission of information or services.”
Blazakis, the former State Department official, said the Trump administration may feel IEEPA’s language is not strong enough for it to try to force social media companies to expel Khamenei and Zarif.
“Unless U.S. officials have a clear example of the designated individuals garnering material support through the use of Twitter and Instagram, they may not want to try to stir the pot with Silicon Valley, because it could lead to an adverse court decision that would end up in Silicon Valley’s favor,” he said.
In a statement emailed to VOA Persian, a Treasury spokesperson said U.S. companies "are responsible for complying with Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations and sanctions" and suggested reaching out to the companies "regarding any alleged violation."
"Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control does not comment on investigations, including to confirm whether or not one exists," the spokesperson added.
The State Department also has directed VOA Persian queries about individual accounts to the social media companies.
Social media companies’ efforts
Twitter and Facebook also have had to consider the impact of any action against Khamenei and Zarif on the companies’ pledges to facilitate public conversation in a safe environment.
The former employee of the U.S. tech companies said shutting down the accounts of senior Iranian officials could close off information pipelines that the followers of those officials consider to be useful or interesting.
“I wouldn’t say that is a deciding factor, but it is certainly something that people think about,” the former employee said.
In a June statement, Twitter said a “critical function” of its service is providing a place where people can openly respond to government officials and political figures and hold them accountable.
“With this in mind, there are certain cases where it may be in the public’s interest to have access to certain Tweets, even if they would otherwise be in violation of our rules,” Twitter said.
In July, Facebook updated its community standards with the following note: “Our bullying policies do not apply to public figures because we want to allow discourse, which often includes critical discussion of people who are featured in the news or who have a large public audience.”
Blazakis said not taking action against sanctioned Iranian officials also could hurt the social media companies’ reputations.
“Here you have a regime that doesn’t allow for access (to Twitter) by citizens of that country, yet the foreign minister is exploiting and using this content provider as a way to promote authoritarianism,” he said. “And in some cases, Zarif’s message may resonate with supporters who may then want to send a check to the IRGC. So (these risks) need to be factored in, as decisions are made about whether continued access should be provided (to regime officials).”
Iran’s government bans Twitter and Facebook, but allows Instagram. Many Iranians circumvent the bans using virtual private networks.
The former employee said social media companies typically allow an account to remain visible while they are looking at the implications of the account owner being sanctioned by the U.S. government.
But even as a sanctioned person’s account remains visible, a company could make changes to the owner’s account settings in ways that are invisible to the public and perhaps even to the owner, the former employee added.
“Let’s say you or I have an Instagram account, and Instagram decides to turn off the ability for us to advertise or monetize. We wouldn’t even know, because we’ve never done it and we have no intention of ever doing it,” the former employee said. “Maybe someday we would, and then we would get a notification saying that we can’t advertise or monetize for whatever reason.”
The former employee said the companies try to determine their legal obligations regarding sanctioned people as narrowly as possible.
“They do what they do need to do to comply with the law, in a way that they believe they’re complying. And then they wait and see where the chips fall.”