Rise of the Cyber Revolutionaries: The Case of Iran
By DAVID PATRIKARAKOS
Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power and established the Islamic Republic, Iran has been, to greater and lesser degrees, a revolutionary state.
This fact is, as well as a political reality, a mindset for those who lead in Tehran. It has proved, over almost forty years of the state’s existence, to be both a blessing and a curse. Iran suffered grievously due to its early attempts to export its Islamic revolution, alienating its Arab neighbours and encouraging them to throw their support behind Saddam Hussein’s 1980 attack on Iran. Hussein thought he could take advantage of the internal chaos to secure a quick victory. He was wrong.
Nonetheless, Iran incurred great losses during the 1980-1989 Iran-Iraq War. It seared into the Mullahs a lesson: ideology would have to be tempered with calculation. And this principle has guided them, more or less, ever since.
The sophistication of Iranian strategy was made clear throughout the negotiations over its nuclear program, as detailed in my book Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State. Over the course of a decade, Tehran exploited an often divided P5+1 (the five Security Council powers plus Germany) to win, in an eventual deal, concessions from the West that would have once been unthinkable.
Facing an internal uprising in 2009 the Mullahs, showed they had learned from the Shah’s mistakes: there were no mass shootings of protestors, and unlike the Arab leaders two years later in 2011, no tanks or military hardware was sent onto the streets. The opposition leaders were not even touched – merely neutered through house arrest. The protests eventually died down; Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remained firmly in control. The same cannot be said of Hosni Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad.
All of this points to a singular fact about the Islamic Republic. When it comes to securing its position, whether through clamping down on dissent or the projection of power, Tehran is a world leader. No surprise then, that, following in the footsteps of Russia and China, Iran is beginning to emerge as a serious online disinformation actor.
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I began studying Iranian social media usage in 2016. What I discovered was instructive, not least about the varying nature of autocracies. Whereas Moscow had from the beginning understood the power of the digital revolution to give a voice to those who opposed it, it equally understood the power those very same technologies afforded the state to combat its enemies. Its instinct was to harness these technologies. In this area it was, admittedly, helped by its long – and relatively recent - experience of Soviet era propaganda campaigns, notably, the so-called “active measures” deployed against the USSR’s enemies. Tehran, however, only saw the threat. It sought to suppress the Internet. And so sites like Facebook were banned. Iran continued to look like a dictatorship while Russia could continue with at least the veneer of being a democracy.
But the regime eventually came to understand that what was a potential weapon for an individual dissident or group of dissidents could be an even greater weapon for a state and the resources it naturally had its disposal. Facebook may have been, as Ali Mirahmadi, chief of police in Semnan Province, believed, “the Zionist mafia’s Trojan Horse” but it was one that could be used both ways.
As I observed in a report for the Legatum Institute, there was now a dawning realisation in Iran that the regime needed to utilise these sites. Indeed, failure to do so would be ceding vital space to the enemy (read: the West). The regime set up the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with “formulating Iran’s Internet policies as well as with devising plans to regulate its use in accordance with the objectives of the Iranian Supreme Leader”.
Since then, Iran has never looked back.
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Almost all senior figures in the Islamic Republic now have a social media presence. Indeed, Khamenei himself has several Twitter accounts; the English language one alone has over half a million followers. Meanwhile, IRGC Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani is featured in photos across platforms – critically, in locations like Syria and Iraq. The message is clear: We are everywhere.
The Islamic Republic – belatedly - understood the power of social media to get its message out, and to publicize its activities, essentially using platforms for the very reasons they were created. But it has gone further. Entire campaigns like Khamenei’s “Letter to the Youth of the West” – written on January 21, 2015 in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks a week earlier, and published on Khamenei’s website stand as one of the earliest examples of the regime using troll-like tactics to promulgate its message.
One of the Islamic Republic’s leading and unchanging ideological tenets is the need to export its Islamic Revolution, and integral to this goal is the need to engage beyond its borders and reach out to the ‘unconverted.’ The letter was, accordingly, “aimed at reaching the youth of the West to tell them to read and understand Islam directly ... Imam Khamenei wants to build bridges with the future, with the youth, those who are going to be the leaders of the future.”
So far so simple. The letter campaign was, however, accompanied by a concerted spamming campaign from thousands of regime-supporting accounts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+, and Tumblr. Critically, as I noted in my study “users did not just 'passively' post links to the letter but, as the publication Al-Monitor notes, made an effort to engage the online Western audience by posting questions such as: 'Searching for the truth? Then #Letter4u is what you might want to read first' and 'Do you know the leader of Iran have written a letter for you??'"
The letter for Western Youth marked one of Islamic Republic’s first concerted official social media campaigns; the spamming that accompanied it was one of its first concerted online information operations.
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Since then Iran has rapidly increased its online information warfare. Reuters recently uncovered a Tehran-based information operation consisting of more than 70 websites visited by more than 500,000 users per month that are promoted by social media accounts with vast followings.
What makes the Reuters investigation so instructive is the nature of the operations. One of the websites, Nile Net Online – which came complete with an Egyptian URL – purported to be an Egyptian "true news" site based “in the heart of Cairo's Tahrir Square.”
It was in fact just one of the bogus websites linked to an online agency called the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), based in Tehran. The content Nile Net Online shares is not the content typical of the pro-US Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt. Instead it repeatedly attacks Iran’s great nemesis Donald Trump and the United States more generally – central goals of Iranian propaganda globally.
It is clear from the Nile Net Online website that Tehran has learned much from Moscow. During the course of researching my book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century I delved deep into Russia’s infamous Troll Farm in St Petersburg. A simple, nondescript building in the heart of the city, the farm devoted itself to pumping out pro-Kremlin propaganda around the clock. Fake websites, purporting to be from foreign countries – notably Ukraine – were a staple of the output. Much of the propaganda was also written or recorded in the language of the target country. IUVM’s websites have published in 16 different languages.
And they have been successful. According to Reuters, until recently, Nile Net Online had more than 115,000 page-followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This is unsurprising. The sophistication of the operation becomes more apparent upon further examination. Another technique the IUVM operation seemingly lifted straight from the Kremlin playbook was to insert genuine news of interest to local, target audiences alongside unadulterated Iranian propaganda. Your average Azerbaijani isn’t generally interested in the greatness of Putin or Khamenei but he or she will read an article or watch the odd video if it’s interspersed with local news, sport and celebrity gossip. The propaganda is slick, and targeted.
And there is no bigger target of this propaganda than Israel. An incident from 2016 involving the website AWDnews.com, highlights the potential gravity of the threat. ADWnews.com is now known to be part of Iran’s information operations stable and in late 2016 ran a fake story in which Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (he had in fact been replaced by Avigdor Liberman by this time) was reported to have threatened Pakistan with nuclear force if it meddled in Syria. This perceived threat, in turn, caused Pakistan’s then Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif, to tweet a veiled nuclear threat at Israel: “Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too,” he tweeted.
Nothing emerged and the article was quickly debunked but in a situation of conflict or possible conflict between two nuclear powers the fear is always that of mistake or miscalculation based on erroneous beliefs. The incident was minor, but clearly demonstrated how miscommunication can rapidly deteriorate to threats.
Iran is ultimately still in its infancy as regards information warfare but Iranian society is extremely scientifically orientated. Shiraz University is the MIT of the Middle East and, as Tehran’s nuclear program has shown, the country is technologically advanced. It undoubtedly has the capability to be an online superpower of the future.
It is not long before Tehran trolling will be trip off the tongue as easily as Kremlin trolling does now – a future that should worry us all.