For a country that has been on the wrong end of United States foreign policy for nearly four decades, it is no surprise the debate over Iran has been polarising. The US’s decision to withdrawal from the nuclear deal this year has boosted those calling for the hardest stance against the Islamic Republic.
Those pushing back against what many say is an agenda for regime change in Iran are reporting an online backlash the likes of which they have not seen before. However, the Twitter accounts doing the trolling may not be the organic opposition voices they are made out to be.
For all the accusations of disinformation and fake news from both sides, it is rare that we can point to facts, a location, and actual personnel explaining the modus operandi of an organised troll factory.
The Listening Post’s Will Yong investigated this story and the trail has led him, surprisingly, to Tirana, Albania.
Faking the online debate on Iran
How keyboard warriors target journalists, academics and activists who favour dialogue instead of war with Iran.
Last month, Google, Facebook and Twitter announced the shutdown of pages and accounts they say were linked to Iran. While the effectiveness of Iran’s online disinformation networks is far from established, the Islamic Republic has now joined Russia in the popular consciousness as another government using the internet to destabilise its adversaries.
Meanwhile, a widespread campaign of social media manipulation by actors who are opposed to the government in Tehran has had many analysts eyeing Iran’s enemies for clues to who might be behind the project.
“The turning point was really [Donald] Trump’s election,” says journalist and New America fellow Azadeh Moaveni. “Once it became clear that there would be heightened hostility with Iran, there was a profusion of new accounts, anonymous accounts who were single-mindedly and purposefully going after people who wrote about, talked about Iran with nuance.”
While Twitter did not respond directly to questions about the methodology it used to detect organised manipulation of its platform, lecturer in Middle East history at Exeter University, Marc Owen Jones, shared with us how he uses freely available Twitter metadata to detect the presence of bots.
“If you want to use bots to be effective you need a lot of accounts, which means you might create a lot of accounts on a specific day or week or month,” explains Jones. “The majority of the accounts tweeting on the #FreeIran and #Iran_Regime_Change hashtag from late December up to May, were created within about a four-month window. What that would suggest is that a lot of the activity on those hashtags came from bots.”
Most of the accounts identified had only a few dozen or a few hundred followers and used generic profile pictures. The vast majority tweet almost exclusively in opposition to the Islamic Republic with many exhibiting sympathies with an exiled Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK).
The MEK was instrumental in Iran’s 1979 revolution but turned to violent attacks on civilian targets after being sidelined by Ayatollah Khomeini. A violent backlash forced the group into Iraqwhere they allied with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
In 2013, the MEK moved to Albania at the behest of the United States. The group has long lobbied for policies to overthrow Iran’s government.
The MEK declined our request for an interview citing, “terrorist threats of Iranian regime and mobilising the agents of Iranian Ministry of Intelligence under the guise of journalist”.
However, former MEK members still stranded in the Albanian capital, Tirana, having left the group, described how the MEK uses thousands of fake Twitter accounts to both promote their organisation and to boost online calls for regime change.
“Overall I would say that several thousand accounts are managed by about 1,000-1,500 MEK members,” former MEK member, Hassan Heyrani, told The Listening Post. “It was all very well organised and there were clear instructions about what needed to be done.”
The MEK online unit was especially active during several weeks of protests beginning in December 2017. Members were ordered to emphasise the anti-regime character of the demonstrations.
“Our orders would tell us the hashtags to use in our tweets in order to make them more active,” says Hassan Shahbaz, another former MEK member. “It was our job to provide coverage of these protests by seeking out, tweeting and re-tweeting videos while adding our own comments.”
MEK keyboard warriors would also target journalists, academics and activists who favour dialogue rather than confrontation with Iran.
“Because of my platform, I have received a significant amount of Twitter attacks of this kind, but I am nowhere near being alone,” Trita Parsi, author of, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, said. “This is actually a very pervasive phenomena, the big victim of this is that we don’t have a rational conversation about policy towards Iran.”
Since access to Iran for journalists is restricted, social media can become a proxy for where the debate is going, leaving open the possibility that both state and non-state actors can use platforms like Twitter to create and manipulate trends in ways that suit their agenda.
“It’s not like what happens on social media stays there any more,” Marc Owen Jones said. “It filters its way into mainstream media. There is so much propaganda, so much fake news that it would take very little to create a wave of what looks like popular Iranian opinion against the government that’s not necessarily real.”
Trita Parsi – Author, Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy’
Azadeh Moaveni – Fellow, New America
Marc Owen Jones – Lecturer in Middle East History, Exeter University
Hassan Heyrani – Former MEK member
Hassan Shahbaz – Former MEK member
The Listening Post, Aljazeera