By H Rastgoo
February 13, 2019
To mark the 40th anniversary of the victory of the Iranian Revolution, pro-regime activists launched a massive online campaign to praise what they consider to be the achievements of the Islamic Republic.
As part of this effort, thousands of posts appeared on social media, mostly posted from fake profiles and bots, to prove that conditions under the Islamic Republic are better than they were under the Pahlavi dynasty. In fact, the campaign is a response to anti-regime activists who had also launched an online campaign to highlight the inefficiency of the Islamic Republic 40 years on from the revolution.
The Leader’s New Approach to Social Media
The recent pro-regime online campaign has coincided with some unexpected remarks from Iran’s Supreme Leader about the role social media plays in propagating the ideas of the Islamic Republic. These remarks were quite unexpected because the Leader and his associates have often considered social media to be a threat to, rather than an opportunity for, the Iranian regime. They have routinely emphasized the necessity of controlling online activity in order to minimize the dangers it poses to the Islamic Republic.
Indicating a change in his attitude to social media and its role, Ayatollah Khamenei said on January 9: “One of the actions that people can undertake is to confront the spread of rumors by the enemies… People should resist the [enemy’s] propaganda. Today the [revolutionary] youth are active on social media. Social media can be a tool to slap the enemies.”
Addressing a group of clerics on January 27, Ayatollah Khamenei also said: “Several [state] institutions are active on social media, and presence on social media should create movements [trends]. Besides, social media is the best means to get acquainted and connected to influential cultural groups [activists].”
The Leader’s remarks were echoed by other hardline authorities, even those who had become famous for their uncompromising obsession with social media. For instance, Ahmad Jannati, the influential chairman of the Assembly of Experts and the secretary of the Guardian Council, said on January 17: “Virtual space can be an opportunity for revolutionary forces… Experts believe that this platform can be used for the sake of Islam and the revolution. So we must enter this space with a jihadi spirit and revolutionary approach.”
A number of state-run institutions that receive government funds to undertake propaganda activities also endorsed the Leader’s new approach to social media. For instance, on January 31, the Basij, the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated paramilitary force, staged an online manoeuver in Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, to coordinate efforts of pro-regime cyber activists on social media. According to Iranian media outlets, the event showcased 540 cyber teams competing against each other in three specialized fields, namely content analysis, content production and content propagation on social media.
In addition to Basij cyber activists, a significant number of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij commanders, as well as judiciary officials and hardline MPs, participated in the event, which also featured a number of speeches that addressed a range of online activities working against the enemies of the Iranian regime — in particular on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
At the same time, many social media experts have cast doubt on the efficiency of state-run virtual campaigns, highlighting the gigantic budgets that are allocated for such activities and the very limited effect they have on public opinion.
A number of hardliners with substantial social media presence have questioned the impact of the budget-consuming Basj-affiliated cyber activities, too. In particular, a number of pro-regime critics of the recent state-sponsored campaigns have highlighted the budget allocated for these cyber activities. Some of these critics have referred to certain Revolutionary Guards and Basij “cyber headquarters” that have carried out extremely expensive projects on social media with little effect — but these authorities continue to exaggerate the outcome and impact of their projects.
Some of these hardline figures have particularly criticized the extreme, massive use of fake profiles to disseminate “revolutionary” content. They have suggested that such unprofessional activities on social media have made no impression on targeted audiences. In addition, some critics have highlighted the massive spread of fake news within “revolutionary” media campaigns.
The expression of such critical views — which is not usual among hardline circles — highlights the emerging struggle over public funds used to sponsor “revolutionary” activities on social media. Many of these critical views may come from people who are genuinely worried about the inefficiency of pro-Islamic Republic activity online. However, many other hardline critics of these activities may be unhappy about the monopoly that certain Revolutionary Guards members and Basij-affiliated organizations command over profitable “cyber projects.”
Recent Responses to Iran-led Cyber Campaigns
Fake profiles and bots controlled by groups linked to Iranian state organizations are not limited to Persian-speaking websites and online activity.
Over the last few years, the world’s largest social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been continuously removing and suspending the activities of many such Iran-led profiles in different languages, especially in English. In two recent cases, these two media platforms made separate official announcements about the measures they have undertaken to counter activities of Iranian fake profiles on social media.
On January 31, Yoel Roth, head of Twitter’s Site Integrity, announced that since August 2018, the platform has identified and suspended 2,617 Iran-related malicious accounts. He added that Twitter had been “in close contact with its industry peers on this matter” and shared “detailed information with them about the malicious accounts”.
On the same day, Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook’s Cybersecurity Policy, announced the removal of 783 Pages, groups and accounts on Facebook and Instagram because they had engaged in coordinated “inauthentic” behavior tied to Iran. He added: “There were multiple sets of activity, each localized for a specific country or region, including Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, US, and Yemen.” The head of Facebook’s Cybersecurity Policy emphasized that the Iran-related page administrators and account owners typically represented themselves as locals, often using fake accounts, and posted news stories on current events.
To give a perspective on the importance of such fake news, Facebook announced that about 2 million people with Facebook accounts followed at least one of these Iran-led pages, about 1,600 accounts joined at least one of the Iran-led groups, and more than 254,000 accounts followed at least one of these Instagram accounts.
The above figures are examples of the extent to which the Islamic Republic is involved in various organized activities online. There is no similar reliable information available on the activities of fake Persian profiles, groups and pages. However, given that influencing Iranian public opinion is a vital priority for the Islamic Republic and its institutions, one could argue that the extent and level of state-sponsored activities online and in Persian is far more significant than it is in other languages.