Iran Aspires to Transform Local Application Into Global Alternative to X Platform

Sheba Intelligence | 2023-10-15 06:07 PM UTC
Iran Aspires to Transform Local Application Into Global Alternative to X Platform

A cartoon by Kamal Sharaf, a Yemeni cartoonist


Over the past months, there has been widespread propaganda about alternative applications for the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, in line with the restrictions the American company continues to impose on users.

"Virasty" is among these applications, and information about it says a London-based information technology company launched it as an alternative to X.

Given the scarcity of information about this "British" company, the investigation answers what the "Virasty" platform is and who is behind it. It investigates information about the parent company known as TS INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY LIMITED (TSIT), which introduces itself as a games and application development company.


Virasty Application

There is no specific date for its release and appearance in the App  Stores. But the oldest accounts of this application date back to October 2022.

The use of Virasty is very similar to using Twitter, and its logo is a reminder of Twitter's blue bird. Also, most of its users write in the Persian language. Its popularity rose in  January in line with Iran's increased ban on foreign social media platforms.

More than 50 million Iranians own smartphones and subscribe to social media platforms. Since the 2009 demonstrations, Iran has tried to build a locally acceptable communication network, but to no avail, as Iranians on local social platforms feel isolated from the world.

The Iranian authorities have been promoting a series of homemade messaging applications, especially in the last decade, in line with the rising demonstrations and widespread repression against Iranians. Simultaneously, the Iranian authorities desperately attempt to ban global social media networks.

This application seems to have a global goal and was developed by the Towse'e Saman Information Technology Company, which owns Iran's local widespread messaging application (Gap Messenger), besides other applications, including MihanSMS, MSGway, AdyWay, and KingsEra.

Tehran seemingly wants to imitate China's "Tik Tok" application, which has spread internationally and competes with Western applications. Also, registering it as an independent organization outside Iran repeats the experience of Telegram, which was founded by two Russians - who own the VKontakte website (the largest Russian social network)- and registered it as an independent organization based in the German capital, Berlin, in 2013.

Popular demonstrations broke out in Iran after the killing of the young woman Mahsa Amini in September 2022 at the hands of the morality police under the pretext of noncompliance with wearing the hijab.

Social media activists in Iran used VPN programs and applications to overcome the government ban on social platforms, especially Telegram and Twitter, which are considered a tool for demonstrators to expose the Iranian regime's repression and violence.

Social media activists in Iran are distinguished by their prompt interaction with events in their country. Each social media user plays the role of media person, journalist, photographer, and writer simultaneously, and they convey information quickly so that everyone shares it throughout Iran. This makes social media an effective tool to confront the regime.

With every failure of the Iranian authorities to contain the protests, they hold Western social media networks responsible. The Iranian authorities also failed to obtain information about the leaders of the demonstrations who disseminated their thoughts through Western media platforms.


The London-based company

UK data indicate that the company that owns the Virasty platform was established in (2010) by two directors: Hadi Anjidani, born in (1958) and holds British citizenship, and Mahdi Anjidani, who holds Iranian nationality.

In 2013, Mahdi submitted his resignation from the company. Currently, the company is registered in the name of Hadi Anjidani.

The London-based company appears to be dormant as it had no activity, as its financial reports for 2011, 2012 and 2013 indicate.

Its financial reports 2014, 2015, and 2016 indicate losses.

The 2017,2018,2019,2020,2021 and 2022 data indicate that assets decreased from approximately five thousand dollars in 2017 to approximately $1,000 in 2022. The company also registers itself as a creditor, meaning that it provides external or commercial services, but as is clear, this money is not collected.

The company has no employees in London, as its data submitted to the British government shows. There is no mention of any achievements or services the company provides, and there is no mention of its clients in the presented reports. The company does not audit any of its accounts under British law.

The company's London registration appears fake, and this registration is used as a cover for giving the applications and services it offers international visibility.

According to Iranian Persian-language media, Mahdi Anjidani and the Iranian Telecommunications Ministry are the ones who mainly promote the Virasty platform.


Who is Mahdi Anjidani?

He introduced himself on Linkedin as the CEO and founder of TSIT. He was born in 1981, which means he founded the company at the age of 23! He said he earned a doctorate in games and interactive media from the prestigious German University of Cologne in 2009-2012.

However, the university does not have a school, college, or doctoral program in games and interactive media. The university specializes in the humanities and social sciences, including medicine and dentistry. It has doctoral programs in management and economics.

Mahdi Anjidani shows that his permanent residence is in Brighton, London, although information indicates that his permanent residence is in the city of Mashhad in Iran. He did not obtain British citizenship.

As for his activity on social media, Anjidani stopped posting on his official Twitter account in July 2022. Before that, he was inactive and rarely posted. But he was very active on his Virasty account.

By observing Anjidani's account on the Virasty platform, it turns out that he is directly affiliated with the Iranian hardliners. He reposted Persian-language sentences by the Iranian religious hardliner Mohsen Anbiai, warning Iranians against allowing their women to go to the market, writing: Should we be ashamed or angry? When our women go to the markets and mingle with men, are not you embarrassed and jealous that your women go to the markets and meet men?

He also published a video clip regarding the Guardianship Day of Ali bin Abi Talib, which extremists in Iran cherish. He reposted what appears to be a Yemeni account (Shibal al-Houthi) celebrating Ghadir Day on the Virasty platform.


The company's connection to Iran's government institutions

As for the parent company (Towse'e Saman Information Technology Company), its official website on the Internet indicates that it has many languages. However, only two languages, Persian and English, are working. The company's activities in 2004 were in e-commerce and information technology.

The company's activities focus on three areas: the production of computer games, the production of web-based systems, and the provision of specialized web infrastructure and Internet services.

In its Persian version, the company says it entered the field of computer game production due to its international approach and reliance on its experience in global markets.

It adds that all these games are offered internationally and are released for different countries with specific requirements for each country.

The English version of the company's website explains its mission precisely, saying that it has been producing computer games for the international market since 2008. All of these games are offered internationally or for a specific country, indicating that its products are designed for the web and smartphones.

The company's main headquarters is in Mashhad, it has an office in Tehran, an office in London, and agents in most of Iran's provinces - as the company's Persian website indicates, but its English-language website mentions its London-based office only.

In terms of its activity, most of the company's activity is inside Iran. It says that it provides services to more than 200,000 clients and has published a list of its clients' names, including government institutions, educational institutions, and private sector institutions.

The data indicate that 192 Iranian government institutions are permanent clients of the company, including municipalities, religious institutions, tax and financial departments, institutions affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, Basij forces, and offices representing the Supreme Leader in the Iranian provinces.

It also mentioned other clients, including 92 universities, higher education centers, and institutes affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard or religious ones close to the Supreme Leader. In addition, dozens of religious, educational, and trade union centers affiliated with or loyal to the Revolutionary Guard are among the company's clients.

In the English version of the company's website, a list of 20 clients appears. Five of its clients are in the United Kingdom, five are in Germany, and the rest are distributed in Ireland, the Netherlands, Canada, and Russia.

There are almost no employees of this company who have accounts on LinkedIn. Only one employee says she works with the messaging application Gap Messenger.


Official support

Although Mahdi Anjidani denied the government support for the application, an organized campaign - apparently run by the government and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard - at the beginning of May, entitled (Salam Virasty), prompted many Iranians to join the Virasty application.

The Iranian government's interest in the application was also evident, as most of the Iranian elite individuals have accounts in this application and write on it almost daily.

Most documented accounts belong to Iranian officials, especially the Supreme Leader and official institutions in Iran. Most Iranian newspapers are present on the application, publish their news regularly, and rely on it to convey the statements of Iranian officials.

Amir Hossein, a former presidential candidate (affiliated with the extremists) who is the head of the Martyr and Veterans Foundation, also announced on the platform that he "will speak to the public without intermediaries," which was his first account on social media networks. Manyofficials and aides to the Iranian president joined this platform.

In June, the Iranian Minister of Telecommunications and Information Technology said that Virasty, the local social network, has about 200,000 users. He said, "About 12-13 government ministers have joined the network. Virasty can be a bridge between government officials and the people."


An Iranian influence tool

In the Google Store, it was written that the publisher and developer is (TS INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY LIMITED), whose address is London.

This indicates that the application developers aim to promote it outside Iran. Reports at the end of last year indicate that the company plans to operate the platform outside Iran's borders. The Iranian media began reporting in December 2022 that the application competes withTwitter.

In January 2023, the application had been downloaded by a few thousand people. At the time, a member of the Iranian Shura Council said: Virasty will be the voice of nations and countries of the region to the world.

On July 5, Anjidani did not hide the application's intention to be part of Iran's soft ability to influence the countries of the region, whether the countries to the east of Iran (Afghanistan and Pakistan) or Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or the countries of the Middle East (including the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council), and Venezuela, China, Russia, Malaysia, and other countries. He said this is to activate "Iran's civilizational capacity in the field of correspondence and social networks." He called for larger support for the "Iranian technological diplomacy."

The application was already spreading in the Arab world and the countries surrounding Iran. In early July, Mahdi Anjidani reposted a cartoon of a Yemeni cartoonist who made a drawing of Virasity kicking Twitter. Anjidani said: "This is a lot of fun and enjoyment. The presence of the Yemeni brothers in Virasty is very valuable to us." The Yemeni cartoonist Kamal Sharaf is a member of the Houthi group, which is supported by Iran.

On July 7, Anjidani reposted a video clip from Iranian television indicating the increase of the Virasty platform subscribers in the region and wrote: With the spread of the Virasty campaign in Arabic among Arabic language users on social media sites, the pace of attendance of users from the countries of Yemen, Bahrain, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon accelerated. Anjidani reposted many posts written by subscribers from Yemen and other Arab countries.


Security in the new application

The Iranian Virasty application has expanded rapidly since May, especially in Iran and Arabic-speaking countries.

More than a decade has passed since the Facebook platform was blocked during the Green Movement protests against the results of the presidential elections in 2009. The Telegram and Twitter applications were blocked in 2019, and WhatsApp and Instagram in 2022. The platforms' owners rejected the Iranian authorities' conditions for accessing user data and information.

There is no legal deterrent that protects the privacy of Internet users in Iran, and there is no encryption for private messages and data. The Iranian authorities are also accused of using the applications' information and data, including those owned by Towse'e Saman Information Technology Company, for security purposes. However, that would not happen if the company was actually registered in the UK.