In Tehran in recent weeks, men have smashed cream pies into the faces of hapless bystanders on metro escalators. Actors posing as private taxi drivers have opened fire on passengers with red paint guns. Young people have tossed eggs at unwitting pedestrians.
The stream of prank videos captured on Tehran's real-life streets and circulating on Iranian social media are not all fun and games to the Iranian authorities. Iranian police on Wednesday announced the arrest of 17 pranksters who posted the videos on a dozen Instagram pages, saying they'd incited public panic. The clips racked up thousands of views, attracting fans and imitators.
“Police strongly confronted such illegal acts,” the country's state-run IRAN newspaper quoted Tehran police chief Gen. Hossein Rahimi as saying. “Publishing such clips plays with people’s nerves, security and peace."
In the videos, the real victims of the pranks appear terrified and angry. One shaken man socked with a pie on the metro escalator grows incensed, chasing the laughing pranksters and lobbing a backpack and shoe at them before trying to beat one of the men up, cream still smeared over his face.
In one staged shooting, a prankster taxi driver films himself arguing with his supposed wife, an actress, in the front seat. When she starts screaming in a jealous rage about how he sent a heart emoji to her friend, he takes out a massive kitchen knife and pretends to decapitate her — leaving only a paint-stained wig. A horrified real passenger in the backseat frantically clambers out of the car.
“I just wanted to make people happy and also increase my Instagram followers,” said the cake-throwing prankster, an information technology graduate identified by IRAN daily only by his first name, Shahab. He told the newspaper that after each prank he gives victims some $20, does their laundry and seeks their permission to publish the video on social media.
Iran's conservative authorities, many with religious sensibilities who view Western influence with suspicion, maintain tight control over the internet and block access to various websites like YouTube and Twitter. Young Iranians still manage workarounds, accessing social media through VPNs and proxies.
The government also has accelerated a long-running crackdown on what it describes as un-Islamic and immoral internet activity. Female models have landed in jail for posting photos of themselves or not wearing their mandatory headscarves outside. Pranksters and mischief-makers have been swept up on charges of spreading fear and panic with their online tomfoolery.
In 2014, police arrested a group of young Iranians who appeared in videos dancing to Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy."
Typically detainees are released on bail and ordered to pay hefty fines.
Hard-liners, now in control of all levers of power in Iran, long have viewed social messaging and media services as part of a “soft war” by the West against the Islamic Republic. They say Westernization is attempting to tarnish the country’s Islamic beliefs.