January 9, 2020
Tehran isn’t as practiced as Moscow at purveying propaganda online, but they’re no slouches.
Iran is charging ahead with new online efforts to sway public opinion as tensions simmer with the United States, experts say. So how good is Iran at online influence campaigning and what do those campaigns look like?
The first thing to know is that Iran’s no Russia, whose online disinformation campaigns in 2016 brought the field into mainstream public discussion. Tehran’s operators are less sophisticated, less well-funded, and less focused on achieving electoral political outcomes. But they can have a big effect, particularly in the Middle East, where Iranian influence efforts have affected operations against ISIS and endangered U.S. troops.
Alireza Nader, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, described Iran’s online efforts as “not equal to Russia, perhaps, but nevertheless dangerous. The regime is known for its hacking capabilities and spends a considerable amount of resources trying to shape discourse on social media. This is something I’ve noticed myself on Twitter.” He says “I’m seeing a huge propaganda push by the regime after Soleimani was killed.”
Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Iran launched a more concerted effort to dominate its internal media environment shortly after 2009’s Green Movement protests. The Iranians “had pretty good reach and were somewhat sophisticated. They were pumping into the region in the early 2010s very, very hard. You could see PressTV correspondents acting like RT correspondents,” he said, referring to the Russian news outlet formerly known as Russia Today.
The Iranians “were messaging around Syra but also around Bahrain, a lot of more Middle East-specific stuff. In the U.S., it was just ignored,” he said.
Watts says Iran’s disinformation and influence efforts are blunter than Russia’s more multifacted campaigns. Russian operators establish fake personas and pretend to be people from the United States or members of other groups, and then carefully maintain those personas, creating content to build credibility within that group, content that doesn’t necessarily further a specific information mission. Watts describes Iranian efforts as far cruder: “They’re focused on the long run but very hasty in execution.”