DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In Tehran, pedestrians walk by, staring transfixed at their mobile phones like in any other major city, though what's being shared now more often than not are campaign promises and candidate lists for Iran's upcoming elections.
Using messaging apps like Telegram and other social media platforms, Iranians and political aspirants of all kinds are preparing for Friday's vote for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, trading lists of names for those backing their views.
Some are worried about online interference ahead of the poll, though many praise the freedom that such access to information has given them.
"It is with us everywhere — at home, in the taxi," Hamid Farid, a Tehran resident supporting reformists in the coming poll, said of social networks.
"It is an attractive way of campaigning that one cannot easily pass up. It is a perfect idea for having an excellent campaign with very low costs," he added.
Nearly 40 percent of Iran's 77 million people can reach the web, though the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House describes Internet access as "not free" in the Islamic Republic due to censorship and filtering.
Iran blocked access to Facebook and Twitter after the country's disputed 2009 presidential election, when footage of the shooting death of a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, at a protest circulated on social media. Her slaying quickly became a rallying point for demonstrators and intensified international outrage at Iran's attempts to crush dissent during the worst internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Today, Iranians still can access the Facebook-owned photo app Instagram and Telegram, which many Iranians use to send text messages, pictures and videos over the Internet due to its perceived security.
Others use virtual private networks — which allow users to bypass Internet filters — to access blocked social media sites. Even supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, have Twitter accounts in multiple languages for spreading his messages.
As for candidates in Friday's election, especially lesser-known politicians, Telegram messages offer a free outlet to spread their campaign promises.
Telegram is "much easier and reachable to many voters than fliers," said Ali Alemi, a politically active 26-year-old student at Tehran's Azad University. "I have used Telegram over the past week to attract voters."
Such social media messages also help voters keep track of the politicians' names, which they have to write down on the ballot, unlike the fill-in-the-bubble ballots common in the West. Some 6,200 candidates are running in the parliamentary elections alone.
"I have already chosen my favorite candidates based on posts received on mobile messaging," said Masoumeh Kameli, a kindergarten teacher. "It is a very nice service for those who are busy with their work."
Even President Hassan Rouhani took to text messages Wednesday to drum up support.
"Dear people of Iran, the country needs your vote," the message read. "Let's decide on a hopeful future for Iran on Friday."
Soroush Farhadian, a Tehran-based political analyst, said such social media messaging allow candidates to reach voters in a country that does not allow private radio stations or television networks.
"The instrument has lower cost and wider influence for ordinary people in their political campaigns," Farhadian said.
However, the government has raised concerns about messages being spread by social media and Telegram. It formed a committee on Sunday to investigate possible illegal activity in the social messaging campaigns, without elaborating on what it considers illegal. Wednesday marked the last day of campaigning in the elections.
Telegram itself also has been targeted by Iranian officials in the past.
In October, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter that Iranian officials demanded the company provide them with "spying and censorship tools." Durov said his company ignored the demand, leading to a week of government interference and two hours of full blocking. Iran later denied "filtering" Telegram.
Durov and Telegram did not respond to requests for comment ahead of the Friday's elections.