Iran is well known as an information influencer in the world. Although it may seem that Estonia is not affected by what is happening in this far away Islamic country in the Middle East, this impression is deceptive. Iran’s escalating confrontations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States are gaining worldwide attention and the influence techniques currently used in the information conflict there have quite probably already been included in manuals of other countries.
In many ways, Iran has used Russia as a role model in its influence activities. Like Russia, Iran has built a stockpile of fake websites and social media profiles. They have stolen contents and photos for them and directed targeting advertisement postings on a variety of platforms including Facebook, Youtube, Reddit and Twitter.
Although, there are also differences, while Russia is a global player and wants to influence processes in directions that are favourable to them worldwide, then Iran is still predominantly dealing with developments in the Middle East. During Russia’s most famous campaign of influence; the 2016 USA Presidential election, misinformation was circulated to all possible target groups and all potential candidates with the aim of splitting society and creating confusion. Iran’s influence activity, however, is clearly one-sided; for example, in the Palestine question it is only against Israel. The messages to the US audience clearly take a stance against President Donald Trump.
In addition to promoting Tehran’s official political agenda, Iran’s propaganda focuses on demonstrating the country’s military capabilities. Potential adversaries are discouraged and allies encouraged by portraying the Iranian military as large, powerful and technically advanced with Commanders that are wise, experienced and victorious. Soldiers fallen in military conflicts are portrayed as martyrs who died for Islam and Iran.
Iran controls these efforts through a special disinformation department within the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security that is tasked with establishing the necessary structures for psychological warfare, media disinformation and propaganda against the enemies of the Islamic Republic.
Fake news led to a nuclear threat
In a report released in the autumn of 2018, Reuters revealed how Tehran was distributing fake news through more than 70 websites in at least 15 countries. Websites were created to distribute Tehran-friendly content. They were made to look like independent news outlets operating in the countries of destination. On closer inspection, however, it was found that the contact information on the web pages was often incorrect. For example, the address of the Egyptian popular news portal, Nile Net Online in Cairo’s Tahir Central Square was fictitious, as were the telephone numbers. However, the portal’s social media accounts had more than 115,000 daily followers.
In total, the network of websites uncovered by Reuters with the help of the cyber-security firms, FireEye and ClearSky had more than half a million consumers a month in various countries and over half a million followers on social media accounts. All the websites were linked in one way or another to the International Union of Virtual Media, an online media agency whose controlling strings lead to Tehran. The websites spread Tehran- friendly true news as well as fake news in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia and Sudan as well as Israel, Turkey, Russia, the USA and EU Member States.
An example of the influence of fake news is when Pakistan’s then Defence Minister Khawaja Asif stated in a Twitter tweet in 2016 that a fake news item threatened him where he believed in an imminent Israeli nuclear strike, which was published by a portal called Another Western Dawn. That it was a fake news item from the Tehran propaganda machine became apparent to him later after inquiries by Reuters journalists.
While many fake news spreading sites and social media accounts have been closed following Reuters’ revelations, many continue to operate and new ones have emerged. In March this year, Facebook announced the closing of 513 fake websites connected with Iran and in May 90, more were closed. In social media, it is relatively easy to close accounts and home pages but closing websites is much more complicated and requires the cooperation of different parties.
The flight of the one-day Mayfly
As a new method of disseminating misinformation, Tehran has adopted the tactics of short-term websites, which the Citizen Lab in its report called the Endless Mayfly Network. The report analyzes how Iran related operatives created more than 100 fake articles in dozens of different domains, many of which mimic legal new reports. One such case is described in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, which was also the victim of identity theft.
An article published in June 2017 on the fake domain, foreignpolicy.net gives the impression that it is a story in Foreign Policy magazine in which former CIA director; Michael Hayden strongly criticizes the US government for its support of Saudi Arabia. In fact, such an article never appeared in the magazine, but the story spread in social media. Today this article is no longer found on the web; only a copy of the web archiving service has survived. The strategy of the unless one day Mayflies, according to Citizen Lab analysis, is to delete fake news reports from the web after they have spread on social media, consequently, eliminating the possibility of identifying the source of the information.
While Iran has been largely inspired by Russia in its influence activities so far, the endless one-day Mayflies are a new approach, showing that the student sometimes overshadows the teacher. Ben Nimmo, from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, confirmed in a comment to Foreign Policy that „if you combine this operation with all of the other Iranian operations we have already seen, Iran is at least as important a player in the field of disinformation as Russia, and they do not seem to be slowing down.“
Pictured: Anti- American graffiti on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran. Photo: Flickr/ CC