Recent events in in the Middle East serve to illuminate the mendacity behind Iran’s government when it comes to communications. Iran has become adept at both propaganda and DI (disinformation) campaign activities. The propaganda aspect has been on full display over the past two weeks. Some American media outlets have swallowed Iran’s propaganda statements “hook, line and sinker” as the old expression goes.
But many in the media and public are unaware of the extent of Iran’s DI program, and how the two are intertwined. Iran has been more active in using social media for disinformation than Russia’s so-called “Internet Research Agency” was during the run-up to the 2016 elections in the U.S. Here are some details:
CENSORSHIP AND PROPAGANDA, NOT FACTS
According to Freedom House, Iran is one of the least free nations on earth. With “1” being most free on its scale, Iran ranks 6/7 in the areas of political rights, civil rights, and with its overall freedom rating. Iran has killed at least 143 journalists and 24 foreign journalists reporting there since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reporters Without Borders describes Iran as “one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years.”
Two months ago, Iran effectively shut down internet access in the country over rising public protests over fuel shortages and other government actions. According to the NGO (non governmental organization) NetBlocks, which monitors internet and cybersecurity issues worldwide, Iran’s internet traffic was reduced by 95 percent in November 2019.
“Journalism in Iran near extinction” is the story which the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian wrote in August 2019. Rezaian chronicles both the extreme censorship Iran does of Iranian journalists still trying to write fair news stories, and how Iran is worsening its already-horrible treatment of foreign journalists. Perhaps no one alive is more knowledgeable about this than Rezaian. The Post’s Tehran correspondent from 2012-2016, he was unjustly imprisoned for 544 days in Iran.
How much of this has been reported in the news media you have relied upon for stories about rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran? Most likely, all you saw were stories which used Iranian propaganda as sources. The more Iran cracks down on journalists, the more its government officials issue outright lies about what happens in its nation.
For example, MSNBC’s Tehran News Bureau chief reported on the air on the night of February 7 that Iran’s missile attacks had killed 30 American soldiers and leveled Al-Asad base in Iraq. MSNBC was broadcasting statements, completely unverified, from Iran’s government. It turned out there were no American deaths stemming from the missile attack. The base suffered minor damage.
Of course those living in Iran were told otherwise. Iranian television news said the missile strikes killed 80 “American terrorists” and gave the attack the name Martyr Soleimani.
Then, just several hours later, NPR and many other media outlets reported on the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 572, a civilian airliner which flew out of Tehran airport early January 8. The news stories almost all accepted Iran’s initial accounts that a “technical malfunction” caused the crash. The NPR account cited four different Iranian sources in its story, broadcast nationally and worldwide on the morning of January 8.
Iran made other claims in ensuring days, including a statement that it would not turn over the planes “black boxes” or flight data recorders to the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing, or to any U.S. investigators. On Friday, January 10, Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei said the suggestion that Iran shot down the plane was a “big lie.”
Yet as this unfolded, many nations came forth with satellite, radar, and other evidence proving that surface-to-air (SAM) missiles had shot down the passenger jet. Iran finally admitted on January 11 that its military forces had fired SAMs which brought down Ukraine Flight 572, killing 176 people. (It is believed Iran used a Tor M1 missile defense battery which Iran bought from Russia in 2005 to shoot down the jet.)
In this same time frame, Iran has been employing its DI resources to try to convince the world that all this was the fault of US President Donald Trump. That’s no surprise, as Iran has been utilizing DI campaign strategies for more than a decade now and greatly increased its disinformation efforts in the past two weeks.
SCOPE OF IRAN’S DI CAMPAIGNS
Patrick Tucker, Technology Editor of Defense One, points out how Iran has recently ramped up its DI campaign efforts. Tucker quotes, Alireza Nader, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, as saying that “not equal to Russia, perhaps, but nevertheless dangerous. The regime is known for its hacking capabilities and spends a considerable amount of resources trying to shape discourse on social media….I’m seeing a huge propaganda push by the regime after Soleimani was killed (on January 2).”
Tucker, Nader, and others all report that Iran flooded Twitter with pro-Iran tweets and memes following the January 2 drone strike that killed Soleimani. At least two “pro democracy” websites propagating such social media messages are inauthentic and based our the Iranian propaganda bureau (see more below).
Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in Defense One that when playing to a U.S. audience, the Iranians will focus on issues related to race, police brutality, and discrimination against Muslims. Iranian DI campaign’s online themes mirror the propaganda they are pushing through conventional TV and other media outlets.
“When you watch their content about the U.S., it’s a lot about the ‘Squad’” Watts says, referring to U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York; Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota; Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts; and Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan.
Watts added that Iran went so far as to create a completely fake version of the Foreign Policy Research Institute website with fake policy briefs. Then Iran targets U.S. lawmakers in an outreach effort to spread the disinformation. “It caused quite a kerfuffle,” Watts says. “They then referenced it on YouTube. It was successful disinformation in the sense that it got policymakers riled up at FPRI. We had nothing to do with it. We weren’t even hacked.”
FACEBOOK TOOK ACTION, REMOVED ACCOUNTS
At least twice in the last 18 months, Facebook security has taken action and eliminated more than 750 accounts, groups and pages which were practicing coordinated inauthentic behavior which originated from Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services in the US, UK, the Middle East and Latin America.
Most recently, on October 21, 2019, Facebook removed 93 Facebook accounts, 17 pages, and four Instagram accounts for violating Facebook’s policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. The Iranians were masquerading as locals, trying to get others to join their groups and drive people to websites connected to “Liberty Front Press”
The websites “Liberty Front Press” and “Quest4Truth” are neither. They are Iranian government-back DI efforts. These accounts typically post about local political news and geopolitics, covering topics such as public figures in the US, politics in the US and in Israel, support of Palestine, and support for rebels in Yemen. If you have friends who are citing information from such sources, you might want to let them know that these sites are a part of Iranian DI campaigns.
Facebook continues to beef up its security efforts. Nathaniel Gleicher, FB’s head of cybersecurity policy, said in a New York Times interview that Facebook is now also applying labels to pages it considers state-sponsored media, such as the media outlet Russia Today, so those reading and seeing their accounts are informed whether the outlets are wholly or partially under the editorial control of their country’s government.
STAY INFORMED – STAY CONNECTED
Many thanks to the 35+ faculty colleagues who attended the presentation which my friend David Mastny, Cuyahoga Community College’s director of IT security, and I gave at the Faculty Colloquium on DI Campaigns this past Tuesday (1/7). We received some rave reviews on the presentation. We would be happy to present this to civic and community groups, and I am also glad to share it on other college campuses. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call my office at 216-987-5040 if you are interested.
Here’s a brief preview, from a video shot in late 2019: https://youtu.be/yFHcEwhuHhs
This site will contain news/details about DI campaigns from time to time. However, posts here are not my main focus with respect to DI campaigns in 2020.