Why won’t Facebook unfriend Khamenei?

Mark Wallace President, United Against Nuclear Iran
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In the coming days, Iran will hold its so-called presidential election to replace the outgoing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It will no doubt be a fraudulent and undemocratic process, resulting in one of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s hand-picked loyalists assuming the post. And while there is little that can be done at this point to affect the already-rigged election’s outcome, at least one high-profile American corporation — Facebook — can take a stand for political freedom and free speech by carrying out the responsible action of disassociating itself from Khamenei.

Khamenei and the Iranian regime are currently using Facebook as a platform to spread hateful propaganda, even while blocking Iranian citizens’ access to the site. The Supreme Leader of Iran and social networking might seem like an odd fit, particularly given that the regime has attacked Facebook as “the West’s weapon in its soft war against Iran.” Nonetheless, for many months the regime has been operating a page for Khamenei, in open defiance of Facebook’s terms of use, which bar threatening speech and graphic gratuitous images.

For example, as Americans were celebrating Memorial Day last month, Khamenei’s page featured the post: “Those objecting [to the] Iran election Mechanism bear stigma of shame about #Guantanamo, having their #Drones over civilians plus a full support for criminal Zionists.” The words were strategically posted alongside a photo collage of bodies of dead children, a mushroom cloud, and President Obama greeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Such online activity is not only offensive, but highly hypocritical, as Khamenei and his cohorts have gone to great lengths to block Facebook for the Iranian public and punish users that circumvent the regime’s invasive online filtering system. Following the disputed June 2009 presidential elections in Iran — when tens of thousands of Iranians used Facebook to voice their dissatisfaction and organize rallies in protest — the regime established its “FATA” cyber-police unit, to “take on anti-revolutionary and dissident groups who used Internet-based social networks in 2009.”

Now, Iranians risk arrest, torture, and death for using Facebook, particularly when such use is determined to be political or “un-Islamic.” For example, in May 2011, Baha’i activist Houshang Fanian was sentenced to an additional year of prison for “disseminating anti-state propaganda on Facebook,” while Iranian authorities imprisoned a man in 2012 for the Facebook activities of his son, who was studying abroad in the Netherlands. In the most notorious case, FATA tortured Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti to death in November 2012 for criticizing the Iranian government on Facebook.

On May 20, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to call his attention to this matter. We requested that Facebook “take immediate action to suspend the Facebook account of Ayatollah Khamenei ahead of the June 14, 2013 presidential elections,” noting that “Facebook is illegal to Iranians and its usage has led to the unjust imprisonment, torture, and death of many activists.”

Many have subsequently joined UANI’s “Kick Khamenei off Facebook” petition page and reported Khamenei’s page to Facebook for violating the site’s prohibition on “hate speech” and “violent or hateful behavior.”

Unfortunately, Facebook has not yet taken the responsible action of deactivating Khamenei’s account. In fact, the company has not responded at all, despite numerous inquiries from UANI supporters and other parties.

With the Iranian election approaching and the regime already disrupting and drastically slowing down the Internet in a pre-election crackdown, Facebook must not duck its responsibility. UANI and its supporters are not asking Facebook to enter the business of foreign policy, or to sign off on every user’s ideology. This, however, is a particularly extreme case, where the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism is openly using Facebook to spread propaganda and justify human rights abuses, while at the same time censoring it for its citizens. These human rights violations and repressions of digital freedom clearly run counter to the values for which Facebook claims to stand.

Last week, Facebook offered a mea culpa for failing to address gender-based hate on its platform. Facebook stated, “We need to do better — and we will.” We are now calling on Facebook to show the same ethical initiative and suspend Khamenei’s account as long as the Iranian people are denied equal access.

In Iran today, the regime is directly impeding the fulfillment of Facebook’s mission to “make the world more open and connected … where people can share and surface content, messages and ideas freely.” It is time for Facebook to put digital citizens before a brutal dictatorial theocracy.

Mark D. Wallace is CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and representative for U.N. management and reform.