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Iranian digital influence efforts: Guerrilla broadcasting for the twenty-first century - Atlantic Council

Return to table of contents Iran has invested significant resources and accumulated vast experience in the conduct of digital influence efforts.

Much of this Iranian content cannot be characterized as “disinformation.” In sharp contrast to the information operations of Russia, which routinely disseminate false stories with the aim of polluting the information environment, Iran makes less use of obvious falsehood.

Instead, Iran advances a distorted truth: one that exaggerates Iran’s moral authority while minimizing Iran’s repression of its citizens and the steep human cost of its own imperial adventures in the wider Middle East.

As a whole, Iran’s digital influence operations represent a continuation of public diplomacy, albeit conducted through misleading websites and social media sockpuppets.

As the United States considers policies to safeguard its elections and confront Iranian influence activities, three conclusions can be drawn about the nature of Iran’s modern propaganda apparatus.

Although this phenomenon came to the attention of many Western observers only after successful Russian interference in the 2016 US election, non-Western states have invested in digital influence capabilities for more than a decade.

Following the 2009 Green Movement—a series of pro-democracy protests, enabled by Twitter and other platforms, that threatened the stability of Iran’s theocratic government—Iranian propagandists vowed to use social media for their own ends.

By 2011, Iran claimed to have built “cyber battalions” that totaled more than eight thousand members trained in blogging, content production, and multimedia design.4“Tightening the Net Part 2: The Soft War and Cyber Tactics in Iran,” Article 19 (February 2017): accessed January 24, 2020, https://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/38619/Iran_report_part_2-FINAL.pdf.

it established the first of countless Facebook accounts that would share political content under false pretexts and fake identities.5“Taking Down More Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior,” Facebook, last updated August 21, 2018, https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/08/more-coordinatedinauthentic- behavior/;

By 2015, Iran had expanded the scope of its digital influence efforts to include platforms like Reddit, where it sought to shape perceptions of the Syrian Civil War.6Daniel Amir, “Analysis: A Brief Guide to Iran on Reddit,” BBC Monitoring, January 2, 2019, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c200it6l.

By 2018, Iran had developed sophisticated online personas that it used to launder propaganda through individual journalists and to even publish letters in regional US newspapers.7Alice Revelli and Lee Foster, “Network of Social Media Accounts Impersonates U.S. Political Candidates, Leverages U.S. and Israeli Media in Support of Iranian Interests,” FireEye, May 28, 2019, https://www.fireeye.com/blog/threat-research/2019/05/social-media-network-impersonates-us-political-candidatessupports-iranian-interests.html Gabrielle Lim et al., “Burned After Reading: Endless Mayfly’s Ephemeral Disinformation Campaign,” CitizenLab, May 14, 2019, https://citizenlab.ca/2019/05/burned-after-reading-endless-mayflys-ephemeral-disinformation-campaign/.

Borger, “US Cuts Funds.” There is a temptation among some US politicians to blame Iranian “disinformation” for a wide range of political obstacles—even including the anti-war movement within the United States.11Marco Rubio (@marcorubio), “URGENT 3/5: The also believe that our internal political divisions combined with the legacy of the #IraqWar will lead a substantial % of Americans to doubt #Iran’s role in such attacks or blame Trump.

While Iran makes systematic use of inauthentic websites and social media personas, the actual content it disseminates is a mirror of its state propaganda: biased in Iran’s favor and contrary to US interests, but seldom wholly fabricated.

Where Russia uses clandestine means to play both sides of a political issue against each other, Iran uses clandestine means to amplify one side as loudly as possible.

This issue brief examines the history, development, and operation of Iran’s digital influence efforts, placing them in the broader context of Iranian security and foreign policy objectives.

This work is based on a reading of literature regarding Iran’s conceptualizations of information warfare and international broadcasting, as well as all available analyses of Iran’s clandestine activities on social media platforms.

Although this is the most comprehensive effort of its sort, the DFRLab could not directly translate all languages used in Iranian propaganda, nor can it be guaranteed that currently available open-source information provides a comprehensive view of Iranian influence efforts.

Following the establishment of a theocratic government in 1979, religious authorities used a mix of bombastic propaganda and brutal censorship to consolidate their political power and demonize potential opponents.

Although US-Iranian relations waxed and waned in the decades following the 1979 revolution and subsequent hostage crisis, they entered steep decline in the early 2000s.

Accordingly, Iran provided arms and training to Shia militias fighting the US occupation, accounting for the deaths of at least six hundred US military personnel.13Kenneth Katzman, Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies, Congressional Research Service, CRS-7-5700 R44017 (2017), updated on July 23, 2019.

Iran further dismissed new US sanctions, applied as part of a “maximum pressure” strategy, as tantamount to economic terrorism.16Luiz Martinez, “Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif says US Sanctions are ‘economic terrorism’,” ABC News, June 2, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/irans-foreign-minister-javad-zarif-us-sanctions-economic/story?id=63355661.

One solution has been to invest heavily in a national narrative and share it with the world—to portray Iran as a religious beacon, as an anti-imperialist stalwart, and as a perennial underdog vis-à-vis the United States.

This is roughly equivalent to the budget of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM, known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors until 2018).20“IRIB Budget Doubles.” As a proportion of total government spending, however, Iran invests about fifty times as much in the IRIB as the United States does in the USAGM.21Iran claims to invest $750 billion in its broadcaster/propaganda agency, the IRIB.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has its own affiliated press operations, as does Iran’s major labor union, which itself exists under the government’s watchful eye.24Zanconato, “Iran – Media Landscapes.” Although these news organizations offer competing views of the world, the spectrum of “acceptable” beliefs is dictated by state censors.

With the advent of cheap satellite dishes in the mid-1990s, foreign television broadcasts became widely popular, despite a ban on home satellite use.

According to a 2010 survey by BBC Monitoring, 40 percent of Iranians were watching foreign satellite broadcasts.30Zanconato, “Iran – Media Landscapes.” Since 9/11, and with an increasing military presence in the Middle East, the United States has sought to expand its Iran-focused broadcasting.

The Islamic Development Organization, a supervisory religious and cultural body created by the supreme leader shortly after the 1979 revolution, described the conduct of soft war as follows:

[E]conomic malady, creation of discontent in the society, establishment of non-governmental organizations, war of media, and psychological operation in order to show government as a weak state…The elements of subversion use the present arenas in the society in order to reach their purposes;

The Iranian Ministry of Defense authorized a dedicated soft-war military force, devoted to cultural preservation and psychological operations, in which even Iranian elementary schools were conceived as potential battlefields.39Ibid, 2407-2408.

Return to table of contents Iran embraced the Internet early and aggressively, recognizing it as a new medium by which the state could strengthen its hand at home and improve broadcasting overseas.

These politically engaged online communities joined with reform-minded politicians and clerics, creating a push for liberalization that touched most aspects of Iranian society.45Rahimi, “Cyberdissent.” For a theocratic state ruled by deeply suspicious religious scholars, a conservative backlash was inevitable.

The first major act of digital censorship came in 2001, when Iranian courts asserted control over Internet service providers (ISPs) and subjected them to strict monitoring and censorship standards.

At voting booths in Tehran, Iranians talked excitedly of this modern candidate, in a suit as opposed to clerical garb, promising to open the window to a digital world from which they had been increasingly isolated.

BBCPersian.com, which launched in 2001, soon became the BBC’s most popular non-English website (it would be blocked by Iran in 2006, although many visitors would find ways to circumvent the ban).48“Iran Blocks BBC Persian Website,” BBC, January 24, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4644398.stm.

In 2003, the BBG created a free proxy service that enabled Iranians to continue to visit the websites of Radio Farda and Voice of America, despite mounting censorship efforts.49Kevin Poulsen, “US Sponsors Anonymiser – If You Live in Iran,” The Register, August 29, 2003, https://www.theregister.co.uk/2003/08/29/us_sponsors_anonymiser_if_you/.

At the same time, the Iranian government increasingly identified the Internet as the vector through which the UnitedStates and its allies were most likely to wage their “soft war.”51Monroe, “Iran and the Soft War.” What remained of the free Iranian Internet was dealt a crippling blow in the aftermath of the 2009 Green Movement.

That same year, the IRGC bought a controlling stake in the Telecommunication Company of Iran, the state’s principal ISP, bringing Iranian Internet users under tighter surveillance.52Zanconato, “Iran – Media Landscapes.” In 2011, Iran created a “cyber police” unit, which quickly became infamous for detaining a thirty-five-year-old blogger and torturing him to death.53Ibid.

In recent years, Iran has sought ever more control of online spaces, following government consensus that the Internet has become an information battleground, a tool of soft war, to be harnessed by the state and rationed to the people.

More sophisticated surveillance, coupled with regular arrest and imprisonment for “propaganda against the state,” has strangled Iran’s independent journalistic community, even under the watch of the ostensibly moderate President Hassan Rouhani.55Heshmat Alavi, “Analysis: How to Define Iran’s Hassan Rouhani as a ‘Moderate’,” Al Arabiya, May 29, 2017, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2017/05/29/How-to-define-Iran-s-Hassan-Rouhani-as-a-moderate-.html.

All the while, Iran continues its slow work on the so-called “National Internet Project,” initiated in 2011, which envisions the creation of a wholly separate Internet.57“Tightening the Net: Internet Security and Censorship in Iran Part 1: The National Internet Project,” Article 19 (March 2016), accessed January 24, 2020, https://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/38315/The-National-Internet-AR-KA-final.pdf.

This “halal” digital ecosystem, free from foreign websites and influence, would allow complete awareness of all Internet traffic in the country—and total control over user data and speech.

The most significant test of Iran’s new Internet controls came in November 2019, when the government raised fuel prices by 50 percent overnight, sparking widely attended protests in at least one hundred cities.59Peter Kenyon, “Higher Gasoline Prices in Iran Fuel Demonstrations,” NPR Morning Edition, podcast audio, November 19, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/11/19/780713507/higher-gasoline-prices-in-iran-fuel-demonstrations.

Many banned services, like Facebook, still enjoy widespread domestic popularity, thanks to the evasion of Internet filters and toleration by some state enforcers (in 2017, there were still as many as forty million Iranian Facebook users).64Zanconato, “Iran – Media Landscapes.” Today, the locus of Iranian digital life is the fashion-friendly Instagram (at least twenty-four million users) and the encrypted Telegram (at least forty million users, despite a limited ban).65Fariba Parsa, “Forget Telegram: Iranians are Using Instagram to Shop,” Atlantic Council, October 17, 2019, https://atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/forget-telegram-iranians-are-using-instagram-to-shop/.

On Telegram, the administrators of popular discussion groups have been regularly summoned by the IRGC, which reminds them that they are being watched.67“Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.” Ironically, as Iran has curtailed Internet freedom for its own citizens, the state has greatly expanded its use of social media platforms for diplomacy and propaganda abroad.

Soon thereafter, Ayatollah Khamenei—who had registered a Twitter account shortly after the 2009 Green Revolution—also began to regularly tweet in English, commenting on issues like the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri.69Kay Armin Serjoie, “Why the Twitter Account Believed to Belong to Iran’s Supreme Leader Keeps Mentioning Ferguson,” Time, December 3, 2014, https://time.com/3618706/iran-ferguson-u-s-twitter/.

At the same time, Iran has seeded a vast network of social media sockpuppets and fabricated websites, forging a new kind of propaganda apparatus in the process.

The first major attribution of Iran’s foreign influence efforts was made in August 2018 by the cybersecurity company FireEye.72“Suspected Iranian Influence Operation.” In the eighteen months since, disclosures by social media platforms and journalists have shed light on operations that began as early as 2008.

By studying these known influence campaigns in aggregate, one can infer much about the diverse actors that spread propaganda on behalf of the Iranian government, as well as the different objectives that Iran intends to accomplish by targeting its efforts across so many nations and regions.

Given this heavy and longstanding emphasis, it is likely that many elements of the Iranian state—the IRIB, the office of the supreme leader, the intelligence services, the IRGC and associated militias, and the regular Iranian military—each employ their own Internet operatives.

The IUVM’s main website declared its intention “to become the largest virtual media network across the globe, in line with our steadfast determination to defend the oppressed peoples of the world.”78“About Us,” IUVM, May 29, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170529205709/ http://iuvm.org/en/about/.

The same day, a wholly different Iran-linked website (“britishleft.com”) reproduced the story and shared it with its own audience.80Ben Nimmo, “#TrollTracker: An Iranian Messaging Laundromat.” In this fashion, a single piece of content could be passed from one website to the next, each with a different readership and editorial style.

In 2014, for instance, an Iranian botnet bombarded French journalists and commentators with twenty-three thousand links to a story that promised to reveal, “What they will never tell you about Christmas.”81Karan, “#TrollTracker: Twitter Troll Farm Archives.” Other botnets turned the headlines of Iranian state media reports into seemingly original tweets: “U.S.

Although Iranians masqueraded as any number of different Twitter users—an unemployed French journalist, or a Venezuelan football commentator—they put little effort into establishing convincing identities or infiltrating the wider political dialogue.

In one case, an account that was called “Liberty Front Press” (named after an Iranian propaganda front) abruptly changed its username to “Berniecrats.” Even with the sudden identity switch, however, the account’s content remained the same.83Ibid.

In January 2019, following Secretary of State Pompeo’s announcement of a summit on Iran and Middle East security, his official Instagram page was bombarded by thousands of mostly identical anti-American comments, many garnished with Iranian flags.84Melissa Hall and Kanishk Karan, “#TrollTracker: Spam Attack on Secretary Pompeo,” DFRLab, February 25, 2019, https://medium.com/dfrlab/trolltracker-spam-attack-on-secretary-pompeo-d2ab638f0b5e.

Other times, it involves a mix of plagiarism and creative misspellings, like appending the BBC logo to an Instagram page called “bbcgraphy,” or stealing the Radio Farda logo for an Instagram page called “radiofardaaaaaa.” One cleverly mislabeled Facebook page, “AlArabyi” (similar to the name of a major Saudi-funded broadcaster) accumulated five thousand followers while sharing ardently pro-Iranian material and claiming the real “AlArabiya.net” as its homepage.92Kanishk Karan, Ayushman Kaul, and Ben Nimmo, “Facebook Removes Iran-based Assets.

In May 2019, Citizen Lab uncovered an advanced network of social media personas and look-alike websites that sought to target and launder content through individual Western journalists.93Lim et al., “Burned After Reading.” These Iranian proxies showed familiarity with the major actors and influencers within the US Middle East policy community.

All told, Citizen Lab counted one hundred and thirty-five articles, seventy-two domains, eleven social media personas, and one hundred and sixty persona-authored stories that composed the operation.95Ibid.

As a whole, Iran’s digital influence operations represent a continuation of public diplomacy, albeit conducted through misleading websites and social media sockpuppets.

For instance, Iranian proxies have built numerous websites and Facebook pages targeting audiences in Indonesia, which boasts the largest Muslim population in the world.96Ben Nimmo et al., “In Depth: Iranian Propaganda Network Goes Down,” DFRLab, March 26, 2019, https://medium.com/dfrlab/takedown-details-of-the-iranian-propaganda-network-d1fad32fdf30.

Iran exhibits similar behavior in its routine amplification of Palestinian civilian deaths at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces, the killing of Yemeni civilians by the Saudi-led coalition, or its focus on the toll of US air strikes in Iraq and Syria.

More recently, Iranian proxies have sought to compromise email accounts linked to the Trump re-election campaign, although the objectives and extent of this effort remain unknown.100Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter, “Trump Re-Election Campaign Targeted by Iran-Linked Hackers: Sources,” Reuters, October 4, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cybersecurity-iran-exclusive/trump-re-election-campaign-targeted-by-iran-linked-hackers-sources-idUSKBN1WJ1ZM;

An example can be seen in “BLMNews.com,” a relatively popular US outlet identified as an Iranian asset by Facebook in October 2019, which used the language and iconography of the Black Lives Matter movement to launder Iranian state propaganda to progressive activists.101Esteban Ponce de León, “Facebook Takes Down Iranian Assets, Some Targeting Latin American Audiences,” DFRLab, October 24, 2019, https://medium.com/dfrlab/facebook-takes-down-iranian-assets-some-targeting-latin-american-audiences-58a964dc0597.

When Iranian propagandists produce material that glorifies particular Western politicians or social movements, it is almost exclusively in the context of advancing a clear Iranian foreign policy objective.

Where Russia routinely disseminates false stories with the aim of polluting the information environment, Iran makes less use of obvious disinformation (although its messaging is still obviously biased).

Where the Russian approach is essentially nihilistic, intended to erode the very nature of “truth,” Iran advances a distorted truth that exaggerates Iran’s moral authority, while minimizing Iran’s repression of its citizens and the steep human cost of its own imperial adventures in the wider Middle East.

But, whereas Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns are intended to obfuscate truth and discredit Western institutions, Iran’s efforts exemplify the art of indirect “Persian persuasion” and deflection.