Iranian propaganda seeks to create discord and influence elections
The 2018 midterm elections in the US will be held in less than two weeks. These elections are critical because many seats in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, as well as state governorships, will be contested. The results of the midterm elections are important due to the fact they will have an enormous impact on both US domestic and foreign policy for many years to come.
As a result, it is crucial that confidence in the democratic process is guaranteed by making sure that free and fair elections are held without the interference of other state and non-state actors.
While Russia has grabbed the media spotlight for the part that it may be playing to influence the outcome of the midterms, the Iranian regime’s role has received much less attention. It is important to point out that, in the last few years, Iran has made significant technological advances, which are partially being directed toward affecting the results of elections both domestically and in foreign nations.
Domestically speaking, the Iranian leaders enjoy significant control over their own elections. Generally only a few candidates, who have been selected by the regime’s apparatuses, are permitted to run for office. The ruling mullahs fulfill this task through the Guardian Council, which is loyal to the fundamentalists and particularly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The 12 members of the council are all appointed directly or indirectly by the supreme leader — six directly and the other six nominated by the head of the judiciary, who is, in turn, appointed by Khamenei.
Iran is spreading dishonest, fake news and misinformation in various languages on popular social media outlets.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
But, since the theocratic establishment cannot exercise such control over other nations’ elections, it resorts to other, more sophisticated means. One approach that Iran has been increasingly relying on is to launch disinformation campaigns by spreading dishonest, fake news and misinformation in various languages on popular social media outlets, which have hundreds of millions of users. The regime also generates and disseminates fabricated headlines and videos, and propagates inaccurate pictures.
In fact, Iran has already been engaged in such propaganda campaigns ahead of the US midterm elections. In a joint statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security recently stated that: “We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies.”
The Iranian regime is using propaganda in an attempt to influence voters to elect candidates who are in favor of pursuing appeasement policies toward Tehran and maintaining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which provides the regime with sanctions relief, extra revenues and lucrative business deals with Western firms. Iran is also trying to undermine people’s confidence in the democratic institutions and norms, create deep division and discord in the US, and ultimately shape the political discourse in a way that advances the ruling clergy’s ideological and geopolitical interests.
One of the popular outlets Iran uses in order to inflict damage on other nations’ internal politics is Twitter. Twitter recently released a treasure trove of data that demonstrates in detail the underlying role the Iranian regime plays. According to the bevy of data, suspect tweets had come from “3,841 accounts affiliated with the IRA (Internet Research Agency), originating in Russia, and 770 other accounts, potentially originating in Iran… They include more than 10 million tweets and more than 2 million images, GIFs, videos and Periscope broadcasts.”
In addition, although Facebook is banned in Iran, the Tehran regime has become skillful at targeting people from other countries who use this giant social media outlet. In fact, Facebook acknowledged in a statement that it had removed “652 pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple Internet services.”
The Iranian regime is engaged in inauthentic behavior, spreading propaganda and disinformation campaigns on social media platforms in many countries. But it is worth noting that two key targets of the Iranian leaders are the US and Saudi Arabia. American voters and the US government must be extremely cautious about Iran’s disinformation campaigns in the upcoming midterm elections. Iran must be held accountable for its propaganda campaigns in other nations.
One way to counter the Iranian regime’s malignant activities is to raise awareness among the public about the accuracy of the information they gain access to on various social media outlets and the role that the Iranian regime’s agents may be playing in distorting the facts and the truth. In addition, engineers, journalists, scholars, policy analysts and politicians ought to cooperate and set up a joint institution that can effectively detect and reverse engineer Iran’s destructive behavior.
• 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.