When Twitter finally decided to shutter the accounts of countless bots using its platform to manipulate the flow and integrity of information, the leaders of repressive regimes saw an immediate—not to mention revealing—drop in their follower counts. Javad Zarif, foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran took to Twitter to demand that the company clamp down instead on users tweeting under the #IranRegimeChange hashtag:
Hello @Jack. Twitter has shuttered accounts of real Iranians, incl TV presenters & students, for supposedly being part of an 'influence op'. How about looking at actual bots in Tirana used to prop up 'regime change' propaganda spewed out of DC? #YouAreBots https://t.co/dTs0diYrM4
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 16, 2018
This hashtag—among others—has become popular since late December 2017, when Iranians throughout the country began a series of anti-regime protests, strikes, and other acts of civil disobedience. It has been the most widespread and sustained revolt against Iran’s theocratic tyranny since the 1979 revolution brought it to power. And so, naturally, Zarif at once declared anti-regime tweeters to be fakes while defending those accounts Twitter had removed—many of which were followers of Zarif and other regime officials—as real Iranians victimized by the American company.
Iranians responded with their evergreen #ZarifIsALiar hashtag, mocking the regime’s chief international propagandist with tweets hashtagged #WeAreNotBots. But Zarif’s public admonition of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey was not a casual gripe. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks more like the premeditated spark for a new round of information warfare, which employed the usual tactics favored in regime disinformation campaigns—deny, dismiss, distort, and distract. It did so to devastating effect and ended up ensnaring the representatives of some highly reputable American institutions, who ought to have known better.
Zarif’s tweet included a highly tendentious Al Jazeera segment that ostensibly supported his claim that anti-regime tweeters as bots and trolls are being controlled by pro-Trump operatives and the Mujaheddin-e Khalq organization, a cult-like Marxist opposition group. The report did not bother to mention the converging existential crises facing the Islamic Republic, nor the fact that most Iranian activists are forced to keep their identities hidden for fear of reprisal. Also unmentioned were those democratic dissidents courageous enough to tweet using their real identities, even inside Iran. In fact, no interviews with Iranian human rights activists were included at all.
Commentators featured in the AJ segment—Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council and journalist Azadeh Moaveni—slavishly echoed the regime’s messaging as usual, and the piece was reported by Will Yong, who has previously worked for Iranian state television. As for the evidence presented that anti-regime tweeters are bots, it was speculative and pitifully weak. Marc Owen Jones, a professor of Middle East History at Exeter University, claimed that a large number of opposition accounts were created in a single four month window, and this apparently suspicious timing, he suggested, was enough to conclude that they were fake. He offered no other evidence in support of his conjecture and appeared to assume none was required.
As it happens, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this surge in registrations. During the four month window Jones identified, supporters of presidential candidate Rouhani were flocking to Twitter to promote their candidate’s re-election. Subsequently, many of these same Iranians took to the streets and to Twitter to express their resentment against Rouhani and other soi disant ‘moderates’ for failing to deliver on their promises and presiding over a precipitously worsening economic situation, despite the conclusion of the Iran deal and the windfall of dollars it had brought the regime. In other words, it is not necessary to invoke the existence of troll farm conspiracies to explain the unsurprising migration of Iranians to Twitter during the pre-election period and their even less surprising turn against the regime.
That the Al Jazeera report was propaganda ought to have been obvious. It was designed to discredit Iran’s democratic opposition at its apex of civic mobilization, and at a time when the Iranian currency was in freefall. The fact that the segment was tweeted out by the Iranian foreign minister as soon as it aired ought to have raised eyebrows, not least among professional journalists and Iran watchers. Instead, US-based researchers and reporters began promoting the AJ segment on social media that same day. Astonishingly, even Radio Free Europe’s Iran correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari announced that it confirmed what “many of us suspected for some time now”:
Many of us suspected for some time now that many of #Iranregimechange & #freeIran tweets are generated by fake twitter accounts. Expert @marcowenjones confirms in interview with @AJListeningPost https://t.co/Ipwbis6ZM3
— Golnaz Esfandiari (@GEsfandiari) September 16, 2018
Esfandiari is a respected journalist at the legendary US government broadcaster and so her credulity was particularly dismaying. RFE’s stated mission is to tell the truth to people living under state censorship, and during the Cold War it established a reputation and a proud history of combating Soviet propaganda. Yet here its correspondent chose to uncritically promote the Islamic Republic’s messaging rather than do her own reporting.
Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, an institution devoted to improving the integrity of discourse on the internet, fared no better. One of its Iran researchers, Simin Kargar, promoted the Al Jazeera piece in an interview she gave to the BBC Persian Service. She cited no scholar at either her own institution or any other academic research institute, and she did not appear to have undertaken any investigative research of her own. Nevertheless, she offered the AJ segment as proof that Twitter accounts calling for regime change are orchestrated by the MEK and other similarly reprehensible actors.
The day after Kargar appeared on the BBC Persian Service, I was invited onto the channel to discuss a tweet thread I had posted drawing attention to the nature of the Al Jazeera report and its widespread promotion. I debated a researcher based in Tehran who forwarded the same argument as Al Jazeera: that anti-regime hashtags pressing for democratic change are Potemkin operations which do not reflect popular opposition. The researcher praised Zarif’s admonition of Twitter and defended the regime’s ban on social media, calling discourse there “unhealthy,” in spite of the fact that the Supreme Leader and other officials including Zarif himself make use of the platform to aggressively push regime propaganda.
Over the course of a heated exchange, I argued that Iranians’ use of Twitter and other platforms creates a particularly potent challenge to the regime as it is confronted by unprecedented street protests and strikes. It is to be expected, I pointed out, that a totalitarian state should therefore seek to censor, minimize, delegitimize, and cast doubt upon the power of social media-enabled expression and association. I also emphasized that the lies about Iranians’ social media activity reflect the regime’s more fundamental and perpetually self-serving lie: that the Iranian people are perfectly content to live in a corrupt and repressive theocracy and that they have no wish to bring it down. The deliberate downplaying of dissent for both Persian and English language audiences is indicative of an attempt to fool Iranians back into submission at a time when the regime has never been more anxious about its survival.
Shortly after my BBC interview, a second sophisticated disinformation campaign was orchestrated by the Islamic Republic’s Cyber Army, and this time I was the target. At first, trolls and bots focused on the interview itself, and the attacks and insults were of a kind to which I have already become accustomed. But then a handful of accounts began posting a re-edited version of a 2015 speech I had delivered at an annual gathering of over 2,000 Iranian Baha’is, a persecuted but peaceful Iranian religious minority. By combining my doctored speech with inflammatory accusations and abuse, these accounts managed to ignite a fire that swept through all the major social media platforms. My notifications and mentions were suddenly flooded with people calling me a mercenary warmonger, an American shill and traitor to the Iranian nation, and a callous and miserable wretch.
The topic on which the association of Baha’is had asked me to speak was “peace,” and my talk had focused on the subject of Just War and humanitarian intervention. I had argued that the mere absence of war on the Korean peninsula has not produced a true peace, and that the outcomes of some wars—such as WWII or the American Civil War—can make a huge difference to the course of human freedom and progress. We all have a duty, therefore, to heed our conscience and to refuse to be spectators to genocide and crimes against humanity. Sometimes military intervention by free states can and does end senseless killing.
The focus of the talk was the value of true peace. I never so much as mentioned US foreign policy towards Iran, a country I only mentioned to confess my personal shame for failing to defend the rights and dignity of the Baha’i. I was careful to emphasize the horrors of war even in circumstances where it might be justified. Even so, the doctored version was presented as evidence that I am an agitator for a US invasion.
Within hours, countless accounts had shared the video and hashtags emerged for my name, accusing me of warmongering. Some of these accounts were more creative than others, adding morbid special effects. Others incited violence or fabricated absurd conspiracies about me, characterizing my volunteer work for the International Rescue Committee in Kosovo as cover for US espionage. Many assumed that I am Baha’i, and so I became the target of the profoundly offensive insults that routinely come their way on social media. One account posted pictures from my high school yearbook and tracked down a 1991 letter to the editor I wrote in opposition to the first Gulf War as evidence that I was once a good, innocent girl since corrupted by US government funding. Mashreq News inside Iran published the same yearbook photos, citing this anonymous twitter account as its “source.” Tabnak, meanwhile, a media outlet run by former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaie, began circulating the doctored video. My Wikipedia page was also vandalized to redescribe me as an advocate for a US invasion of Iran.
Tavaana, the civic education and civil society building initiative I founded and co-direct, also came under attack for our receipt of US government funding. We have been fully transparent about (and enormously grateful for) this support ever since our launch in 2010, but that did not stop my critics and trolls from pretending they had made a scandalous discovery. A researcher at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, widely reputed by the Iranian democratic opposition to be working for the regime’s intelligence service, joined in using his real identity; Canadian-Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan posted our 501c3’s tax returns as evidence of my alleged corruption.
As the defamation campaign gathered momentum, Twitter accounts that had just opened with a mere handful of followers began to exert pressure on prominent Iranian intellectuals, including some who have taught at our organization. They managed to convince or bully some of these older thought leaders, such as the human rights defender Mehrangiz Kar and scholar Mohammad Reza Nikfar, into denouncing both my speech and Tavaana. Long-standing dissidents inside the country like Heshmatollah Tabarzadi also became entangled in the row, but he eventually had the sense to remove his posts denouncing me once he realized what was happening. Finally, the Islamic Republic’s intelligentsia entered the fray, with revolutionary thug-turned-“reformist” thinker Mostafa Tajzadeh posting the doctored video and calling me a pro-Trump opposition figure who he claimed supports an American invasion of Iran out of some kind of self-interest. A few prominent liberal activists and intellectuals did write publicly in my defense, but these were few and far between.
What was most alarming about this experience was how effective it was in spite of the fact that the unedited video of my speech was freely available to anyone who wished to see it. The truth will struggle to make itself heard amid the din of an unrelenting onslaught of lies and disinformation. Social media campaigns like those waged by the Iranian regime are designed to menace dissidents into silence, and they can be extremely efficient instruments for doing so once they gather momentum. The eye of a co-ordinated state-sponsored social media storm is a daunting place to be. The indiscriminate defamation of dissidents in general is followed by a ferocious attack on the reputation and credibility of anyone who stands up to object. Nevertheless, such campaigns must be identified if they are to be exposed and resisted. Only then can the struggle for liberal values against despotism continue.
Mariam Memarsadeghi is co-founder and co-director of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, a virtual institute offering secure democracy and human rights educational opportunities. A 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar, she is an outspoken advocate for the principles of liberalism, women’s rights, civic education and internet freedom, particularly in Islamic contexts. You can follow her on Twitter @memarsadeghi