Iranian Americans Struggle to Reach Family Amid Internet Blackout

When people in Iran began protesting a rise in gas prices last Friday, Mina, an Iranian American based in Washington, DC, wasn’t sure what to feel. She had spoken with family members in the country that day; their accounts of the demonstrations were “not particularly alarming,” she says. By Saturday evening, when the Iranian government instituted a near-total internet blackout , Mina began to panic.“I couldn’t get hold of anyone over Instagram or Telegram, which is how I usually reach out to friends and family in Iran,” she says. “It was as if a switch was turned off. I stayed up all night, and I began to feel desperate to know what was going on.”
Mina is one of countless Iranians in the US who have tried to contact friends and family members in Iran amid a nationwide internet shutdown that has lasted six days so far. She asked that her last name be withheld out of fear of repercussions for her relatives there.The unrest began last week, when the Iranian government declared its intention to cut fuel subsidies and increase the cost of gasoline. The decree sparked demonstrations in more than 100 cities across Iran, where the country’s 80 million citizens have already struggled for years under crippling US sanctions.
On Saturday, as dramatic scenes began to spread online—images of widespread looting, protesters chanting against and kicking down signs of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hasan Rouhani, and security forces violently turning against demonstrators—the Iranian regime instituted an internet and mobile data blackout in an attempt to suppress protests and prevent those outside of Iran from paying attention to the unrest.As of Wednesday morning, NetBlocks, a group that tracks internet access across the world, reported that “90 hours after #Iran implemented a near-total internet shutdown, connectivity continues to flatline at just 5 percent of ordinary levels.”
The internet shutdown has only heightened the sense of fear among Iranians in America, as they attempt to circumvent the blackout to contact their families and friends. On Monday morning, after a second night of worry and little sleep, Mina took to Twitter to solicit advice. “How are folks calling to check on family/friends in Iran? Please comment below,” she wrote.Several users chimed in with suggestions or to share their frustrations. A few seemed to have luck using Skype credits to call landlines inside Iran.
Assal Rad, a research fellow at the National Iranian American Council, says that after days of frantically trying to contact people through messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, she was able to use $5 of Skype credits to speak to a friend for 25 minutes. (Disclosure: I previously worked for NIAC but left in 2017.)