Before Nazilla Akbari can check out the latest offerings on Twitter or YouTube, she scrolls through an array of icons on her smartphone, searching for the right workaround to bypass state censors.
It’s a cat-and-mouse game that has become second nature in Iran, where the clerically-led government restricts access to popular social media sites and where U.S. sanctions create other barriers.
“Every day I struggle for 40 minutes just to get connected to uncensored internet,” Akbari, a 30-year-old software developer, told The Associated Press. “Even after I do, the internet is so slow that I have difficulty even watching a short video.”
Iranian authorities have sought to limit Western cultural influence since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They began blocking popular sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube when activists used them to organize mass protests and document a crackdown after a disputed election in 2009.
That hasn’t stopped Iranians from accessing such sites through virtual private networks, or VPNs, and other services. It also hasn’t prevented a number of top Iranian officials from using the sites to broadcast the official line. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif frequently tweets in English, and accounts believed to be run by the offices of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani regularly post on their behalf.
Khamenei himself has urged the nation’s youth to “smartly use the cyberspace to slap the enemy in the mouth,” and pro-government accounts have proliferated on Twitter and Instagram.