Why Iran is using social media to spread misinformation
I have long suggested that the giant social media outlets ought to look into the Iranian regime’s major role in disinformation and the dissemination of fake news.
What the most recent revelations have brought to light is that it is not only Russia engaged in such activities, but also Tehran, following in the same footsteps as its close ally. In a statement, Facebook, the predominant social media platform, on Wednesday pointed out that it had removed “652 pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services.”
In addition, other popular social media outlets such as Twitter and Alphabet have also identified many “inauthentic” accounts that originate in Iran. These fake accounts and profiles have now been removed.
The Iranian regime uses sophisticated campaigns and operations on social media. Several crucial components of the Iranian state’s apparatuses — including the state-owned news outlets such as Press TV, hard-line organizations and individuals affiliated with the regime — use various social media platforms to spread disinformation and fake news.
What is the Iranian regime attempting to accomplish? First of all, through deliberate misinformation or hoaxes, Tehran is trying to shape the political discourse of other countries and intentionally mislead people in order to advance the ruling mullahs’ revolutionary, ideological and geopolitical interests.
By relying on the latest technology and employing various methods, such as generating and disseminating fabricated headlines and videos, and propagating fake news and inaccurate pictures, the theocratic establishment of Iran is directly interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
The regime’s deliberate misinformation and spread of fake news through popular Western social media outlets is aimed at inciting anti-Saudi, anti-Western — particularly anti-American — and anti-Israeli sentiments. This also makes it extremely difficult for legitimate news organizations and credible journalists to provide accurate coverage and truthfully inform the public about important social, political and cultural landscapes.
Secondly, Iran’s leaders are seeking to promote specific policies in other countries that are inimical to the interests of those nations, while benefiting Tehran and strengthen the ruling mullahs’ hold on power. For example, one of these policies includes maintaining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in order to provide the Iranian regime with sanctions relief, extra revenues and lucrative business deals with Western firms.
Third, the Islamic Republic is attempting to promote specific narratives in other parts of the world that suit its parochial interests. Some of these false narratives consist of projecting that Iran’s militaristic involvement in Syria, Iraq and Yemen is for humanitarian purposes; that the government enjoys widespread support domestically and regionally; that Iran is fighting a battle with other regional and global powers that are committing crimes against humanity in the region; that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a major force fighting Daesh; that European countries are as malignant as the US; that Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes; that negotiations with the West are always a mistake; that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are enemies; and so on.
To advance such inaccurate narratives, Iran’s politicians and agents across the political spectrum use various social media outlets in languages such as English, Arabic, Spanish and Persian.
The Iranian regime uses sophisticated campaigns and operations on social media.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
It is worth noting that a two-pronged strategy is employed here. On the one hand, Iranian officials are focused on spreading the regime’s larger themes and narratives. On the other hand, many of the Iranian regime’s fake accounts and profiles go into more detail on social media by targeting, verbally attacking, and naming and shaming those who merely disagree with the Iranian regime’s policies, destructive behavior, aggressive foreign policy, human rights abuses and military adventurism in the region.
The irony is that, while Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and their affiliates, are active on popular social media outlets, the Iranian regime is taking extensive measures by waging a war to crack down on its population’s use of social media.
Developing new filtering software, blocking access, hacking and censorship are rampant, and utilized by the Iranian authorities as a powerful means to further restrict the use of social media outlets by its own citizens. For example, Tehran recently blocked the messaging app Telegram because it was popular and used by many Iranians to inform the world about the nationwide protests against the regime.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh