Updated 4:26 p.m., Nov. 8, 2019
Twitter has briefly suspended the accounts of a prominent U.S.-based Iranian opposition group and several of its supporters for alleged violations of the company's rules, marking the latest Twitter intervention in a bitter online feud between Iranian government opponents and supporters.
The account of the Organization of Iranian American Communities, a nonprofit group that supports what it calls the Iranian people's "struggle for democratic change" and a "non-nuclear government," was suspended Wednesday and remained blocked until it was restored Friday. It has more than 6,000 followers.
OIAC found itself suspended from Twitter just as it began hosting a Wednesday briefing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington to discuss what it called an “increase in domestic suppression and regional aggression by Tehran.”
Republican Senators Ted Cruz and John Boozman attended the event.
OIAC is allied to exiled Iranian dissident movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which leads the France-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and advocates the “overthrow of religious dictatorship” in Iran. Islamist clerics have led the nation since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Speaking to VOA Persian, OIAC board member Alex Arzabak said the group’s social media team first noticed the suspension of their account as they were preparing to tweet about Wednesday’s event. They instead shared images from the event on a smaller account run by the group’s Texas affiliate. Arzabak said it was the first time OIAC’s main Twitter account has been suspended.
Two other San Francisco-based supporters of OIAC and MEK told VOA Persian that their Twitter accounts also had been suspended Wednesday. The account of Peymaneh Shafi, an IT engineer, remained blocked Friday, while the account of her friend Shanaz, who declined to share her last name for privacy reasons, was suspended for part of Thursday until being unblocked in the afternoon, local time.
Arzabak and the two women said they received no warning of the account suspensions from Twitter and were unaware of violating any Twitter rules. They also said they suspected their accounts were the target of complaints by the Iranian government or its supporters, who may have reported those accounts to Twitter in order to trigger the suspensions. Twitter enables its users to file complaints about other users’ accounts privately.
Pro-Iranian government Twitter users often have criticized MEK supporters on the social media platform, accusing them of spreading lies and engaging in other manipulative behavior. Pro-MEK Twitter users, in turn, have accused Iranian government supporters of slandering them and trying to silence their voices.
In June, Twitter announced the removal of 4,779 accounts that it said originated in Iran and were engaged in a coordinated, government-backed effort to abuse its service and undermine “healthy discourse.” It said 2,865 of those accounts “employed a range of false personas to target conversations about political and social issues in Iran and globally.”
Twitter declined a VOA Persian request to comment on its latest suspensions of the pro-MEK accounts or what rules they allegedly violated. The company’s terms of service prohibit several types of user behavior, including engaging in spam.
In a Friday message to VOA Persian shortly before the OIAC account was restored, a spokesperson, Majid Sadeghpour, said his group was working with Twitter to resolve OIAC's concerns.
Speaking to VOA Persian on Thursday, Shafi said she sent Twitter a request to unblock her account but received a reply notifying her that she had violated Twitter rules and would be permanently banned.
“I used Twitter mainly to campaign against executions and unjust treatment of dissidents in Iran,” Shafi said, adding: “I’m not going to be quiet about this.”
Shanaz sent VOA Persian a screen shot of a Twitter notice that she said she received Wednesday, showing that she also had been “permanently suspended” because of “multiple or repeat violations of our rules.”
She later shared a screen shot of another Twitter message that she said she received Thursday, saying the company decided to unsuspend her account after reviewing her appeal.
A VOA Persian review of Shanaz’s tweets shortly after her account was unblocked found that she had posted an average of about 100 tweets a day in the previous five days, almost all of them retweets of posts by other pro-MEK users, media outlets, and a variety of U.S. officials, lawmakers and analysts. Several of the pro-MEK users whom she retweeted also had been suspended from Twitter on Wednesday before being re-instated by late Thursday.
“Twitter’s algorithm on spam or whatever criteria they used to suspend me is not perfect and needs more work,” Shanaz said, after her account was unblocked.
In an online note about suspended accounts, Twitter said most of them are suspended “because they are spammy, or just plain fake, and they introduce security risks for Twitter and all of our users.”
“Unfortunately, sometimes a real person’s account gets suspended by mistake, and in those cases we’ll work with the person to make sure the account is unsuspended,” the note added.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.