Iran’s cyber battalion, consisting of 8,000 members, has been relentlessly working since 2011 to wage an online propaganda war against the United States, according to a report released by the Atlantic Council.
The report by council experts Emerson T. Brooking and Suzanne Kianpour was released on the 41st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution at a half-day conference in Washington and analyzes how the Iranian regime studies and exploits new communication technologies.
“Modern Iran, born from Islamic revolution and engaged in a 41-year cold war with the United States, has been quick to study and exploit new communications technologies,” said the report.
The Iranian regime started to use social media as a propaganda tool “following the 2009 Green Movement—a series of pro-democracy protests, enabled by Twitter and other platforms, that threatened the stability of Iran’s theocratic government.”
Brooking and Kianpour said Iran’s digital influence operations against the United States include “a continuation of public diplomacy, albeit conducted through misleading websites and social media sockpuppets” to broadcast messages to audiences in Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, North America, Latin America, and the Middle East.
“The aim of these efforts is to ‘tell Iran’s story,’ the same as any Western government broadcaster might strive to do. The difference is that, as an international pariah, Iran must pursue this work through more clandestine means. Global observers have long learned to doubt the truthfulness and sincerity of Iranian-branded media,” said the report.
How Iran Spreads Distorted Truth
The two Atlantic council experts said in the report that much of the Iranian propaganda content can’t be characterized as “disinformation” but as “distorted truth.”
“Much of this Iranian content cannot be characterized as ‘disinformation.’ In sharp contrast to the information operations of Russia, which routinely disseminate false stories with the aim of polluting the information environment, Iran makes less use of obvious falsehood.
“Instead, Iran advances a distorted truth: one that exaggerates Iran’s moral authority while minimizing Iran’s repression of its citizens and the steep human cost of its own imperial adventures in the wider Middle East,” said the report.
It said Iran started using Facebook and Twitter “sockpuppets” as early as 2010 to gain information dominance nationally and globally.
“As the United States and Iran entered into a period of rapprochement and negotiation, the number of accounts grew exponentially. These accounts have been used to launder Iranian state propaganda to unsuspecting audiences, often under the guise of local media reports,” it said.
Facebook has identified 2,200 Iranian assets affecting 6 million of its users, while Twitter has identified 8,000 accounts generating about 8.5 million messages.
Iran May Interfere in 2020 US Elections
Brooking and Kianpour said in their report that the Iranian regime may use its subversive online warfare to interfere in the 2020 national elections in the United States.
“Iran may attempt direct electoral interference in 2020 and beyond. To date, there is little evidence that Iran has sought to affect the outcome of a U.S. election. This does not, however, preclude future such campaigns based on Iranian interest in achieving rapprochement with the United States,” the experts said.
They said using its digital influence efforts on various social media platforms including Reddit, Iran even worked to influence the perceptions of the Syrian Civil War.
“By 2018, Iran had developed sophisticated online personas that it used to launder propaganda through individual journalists and to even publish letters in regional U.S. newspapers. By 2020, and following the U.S. assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, Iran was using this apparatus to mount continuous influence operations against the United States,” it said.
The report said the United States government should push back the Iranian online propaganda by addressing regular press briefings to the Iranian people, as these have been widely disseminated and received.
The report recommended that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) set up an appropriate intergovernmental entity to publicize foreign influence operations.