April 6, 2019
Iran uses a network of websites, which are misleading and registered with “false” data, to spread its digital propaganda in the Arab world, according to a study published by Oxford University.
The study, titled “Iranian Digital Interference in the Arab World,” points out that the network mainly attacks Saudi Arabia.
The study was prepared by three researchers from the Project on Computational Propaganda (COMPROP) based at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.
It analyzed the content of more than 154,000 Arabic tweets from hundreds of accounts that Twitter has suspended last August for participating in an Iranian-based “systematic disinformation campaign.”
“While Iran has constantly interfered in Arab politics, either militarily or by supporting non-state actors, digital interference operations appear to be a recent strategy adopted by Iran to exert influence in the Arab world,” the study said, noting that its interventions have become more conspicuous since the Arab Spring of 2011.
Unlike Arab-world-directed official Iranian media, the suspended accounts have promoted content of Iranian-based secretly run websites and were registered using fake names and false information, giving the impression that these sites are run from different Arab countries, the study explained.
The oldest account was created in April 2009, and the newest was created in August 2018.
While checking the creation dates, researchers found that around 40 percent were created in 2017 alone. Creation dates peak around May 2017 and January 2018, corresponding with the Iranian presidential elections that took place in May 2017 and with the Iranian protests in January 2018.
“This seems to indicate that the accounts were initially created to support the Iranian state,” according to the study.
The Iranian accounts promoted more than 23,000 different hashtags associated with Arabic-language tweets.
The most frequently used hashtags reflect issues of Iranian interest, the study showed, adding that among the most frequently used hashtags in its data set, five referred to countries in which Iran has a political interest. These countries are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
Impersonating news outlets was one of the main tools the Iranian accounts used to intervene in the Arab world, pointed the study.