Iran Is Expanding Its Online Disinformation Operations

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Tehran isn’t as practiced as Moscow at purveying propaganda online, but they’re no slouches.

Iran is charging ahead with new online efforts to sway public opinion as tensions simmer with the United States, experts say.  So how good is Iran at online influence campaigning and what do those campaigns look like?

The first thing to know is that Iran’s no Russia, whose online disinformation campaigns in 2016 brought the field into mainstream public discussion. Tehran’s operators are less sophisticated, less well-funded, and less focused on achieving electoral political outcomes. But they can have a big effect, particularly in the Middle East, where Iranian influence efforts have affected operations against ISIS and endangered U.S. troops. 

Alireza Nader, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, described Iran’s online efforts as “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. This is something I’ve noticed myself on Twitter.” He says “I’m seeing a huge propaganda push by the regime after Soleimani was killed.”

While Russia's disinformation operation includes conventional media as well as intelligence and military elements, Iran’s influence and disinformation actors are generally part of traditional media outlets like PressTV. The online campaign is an extension of what Iran has been doing with television for decades. 

Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said  Iran launched a more concerted effort to dominate its internal media environment shortly after 2009’s Green Movement protests. The Iranians “had pretty good reach and were somewhat sophisticated. They were pumping into the region in the early 2010s very, very hard. You could see PressTV correspondents acting like RT correspondents,” he said, referring to the Russian news outlet formerly known as Russia Today. 

The Iranians “were messaging around Syra but also around Bahrain, a lot of more Middle East-specific stuff. In the U.S., it was just ignored,” he said. 

Watts says Iran’s disinformation and influence efforts are blunter than Russia’s more multifacted campaigns. Russian operators establish fake personas and pretend to be people from the United States or members of other groups, and then carefully maintain those personas, creating content to build credibility within that group, content that doesn’t necessarily further a specific information mission. Watts describes Iranian efforts as far cruder: “They’re focused on the long run but very hasty in execution.” 

Russian operators might seek to influence a particular political race or ballot measure in a specific country, but the Iranian focus is much less complex. The goal is always a push for Iranian foreign policy objectives, and turning global sentiment against the United States. 

When playing to a U.S. audience, he says, the Iranians will focus on issues related to race, police brutality, and discrimination against Muslims, and the online themes will mirror what 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,” he 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. The Squad, which contains two Muslim members, is a frequent target of American conservative media.

The Iranians have a growing reach in some surprising places, including Latin America, thanks to an Iranian Spanish-language outlet called HispanTV. “They’ve actually achieved quite a bit of reach in Latin America.” says Watts. “They’re quite successful, which is also strange.”

Iranian messaging comes in two primary flavors, altered just a bit to suit the intended audience, Watts says. The first is pro-Iran, such as the recent flood of pro-Soleimani propaganda that swamped parts of the Twittersphere in the days after a Jan. 2 airstrike killed the Iranian military commander. This is mostly naked self-promotion intended for consumption by the Shia portion of the Middle East. The second form is much broader: anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Western. This is intended to foment resentment against the U.S. among audiences like Sunni Muslims, audiences that wouldn’t support Iran on other issues. In October, Facebook announced that it had booted a number of fake Iranian accounts spreading disinformation within the United States and North Africa. “It’s not necessarily communicating to the diaspora. It's really about mobilizing many adversaries against their opponents,” says Watts. 

But like Russia, Iran isn’t above dirty tricks. Or at very least, there’s been a big increase recently in actors pushing pro-Iranian narratives online through deceptive means. A Kuwaiti news agency this week announced that it had been hacked to spread disinformation about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, though agency officials declined to specifically name Iran as the source. 

Watts shared a recent and personal example. Earlier this week, he revealed, actors he believed to be Iranian created a fake version of the FPRI website, complete with fake policy documents. They then targeted U.S. lawmakers with an outreach effort to spread fake news. “It caused quite a kerfuffle. 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.”