Tehran tangled in web of disinformation

BY Claude Salhani

When the mullahs took control of Iran, they banned dancing, music and much of the social contact between the sexes, among a slew of other activities that are generally considered normal behaviour in the rest of the world.

Since then the situation has somewhat improved, though the country remains very much under the control of the theocracy, which, though somewhat more lenient, continues to frown on anything even remotely resembling what they refer to as “Western decadence.”

The Iranian leadership demonstrates its two-faced nature when it rejects all Western values and classifies them as evil yet easily and quite happily turns to the internet — surely an invention of Western decadence if there ever was one. Indeed, the clergy never hesitated to use the internet as a weapon in its hypocritical fight against the West.

Its approach to the internet is duplicitous. It cracks down at any hint of free expression in social media. At the end of May, the regime arrested an Instagram star who posted videos of herself dancing.

Its approach to the internet is duplicitous. It cracks down at any hint of free expression in social media. At the end of May, the regime arrested an Instagram star who posted videos of herself dancing.

In the absence of clubs and bars, parties in Iran were the one place where people could dance and freely socialise, though such gatherings are technically breaking the law.

Faranak Amidi, a reporter on women’s affairs with the BBC, grew up in Iran during the 8-year Iraq-Iran war, or what she refers to as the “dark days.”

“Food was rationed and blackouts were regular but, even during those dark days, I remember dancing with my friends to music on cassettes bought from illegal music dealers,” Amidi said.

Almost at the same time, Tehran abuses social media as part of its influence peddling schemes. Facebook and Twitter said they disabled accounts used in an Iran-based campaign to sway public opinion by impersonating reporters, politicians and others.

Though in this instance, given the source of the information, the content and the actors involved, it is obvious the reasons behind this is more laced with malicious intent rather than admiration.

Facebook removed 51 accounts, 36 pages and seven groups and another three accounts from Instagram after a tip from internet security firm FireEye, National Security Council Director of Cybersecurity Policy Nathaniel Gleicher said.

Twitter told Agence France-Presse that it removed 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran at the beginning of May. “Our investigations into these accounts are ongoing,” a Twitter spokeswoman said, declining to discuss details until the analysis was finished.

A network of English-language social media accounts misrepresenting who was behind them was evidently orchestrated to promote Iranian political interests, FireEye said.

“In addition to utilising fake American personas that espoused both progressive and conservative political stances, some accounts impersonated real American individuals, including a handful of Republican political candidates that ran for House of Representatives seats in 2018,” FireEye said in a blog post.

Characters in the influence network had material published in US and Israeli media outlets, lobbied journalists to cover certain topics and appear to have orchestrated interviews in the United States and Britain regarding politics, FireEye reported.

It was not clear whether the campaign was related to a broader Iran-based social media influence operation uncovered last year, FireEye said.

“The individuals behind this activity, which also took place on other internet platforms and websites, misled people about who they were and what they were doing,” Gleicher was quoted by AFP as saying.

Frauds claimed to be in the United States or Europe used fake accounts to run pages or groups and impersonated legitimate news organisations in the Middle East, Facebook said.

“The individuals behind this activity also represented themselves as journalists or other personas and tried to contact policymakers, reporters, academics, Iranian dissidents and other public figures,” Gleicher said.

Access to the internet in Iran is tightly controlled by security services. US intelligence said Iran employs about 35,000 volunteers who monitor all e-mail traffic for content they see as counter to their worldview.

This is not the first time the so-righteous regime of the mullahs had been caught trying to mislead world opinion. There must have been a fatwa deeming fake social media accounts totally halal.

Disinformation it seems is a state monopoly in Iran. Any journalist refusing to toe the line is, ironically, charged with “misinformation” and risks heavy penalties.

Iran’s judiciary sentenced Iranian reporter Masoud Kazemi to two years in prison for “spreading misinformation” and “insulting” the supreme leader and the authorities. Kazemi’s lawyer said the journalist was banned from “media activities” for two years.

Tehran wants its increasingly unhappy population to know only the regime has the right to disinform others and that the only accurate information is the one doled out by authorities.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs

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