Iran's Efforts to Control Information Are Apparent Both at Home and Abroad

By Edward Carney

It was announced on Thursday that Twitter had removed thousands of accounts that appeared to be participating in a disinformation campaign backed by the Iranian government. It was not the first such announcement to be made by either Twitter or other social media platforms that have been struggling to manage false and misleading content since the revelation of foreign interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Although much of the public dialogue about coordinated manipulation of social media has focused on Russia, other adversaries of the US have adopted similar tactics, and Iran’s capabilities in this regard have apparently growth considerably in recent months.

The latest news concerns the removal of 4,779 accounts that were identified as being either affiliated with or explicitly backed by Iran’s theocratic regime. This disabled accounts now stand alongside approximately 2,800 others that were reportedly removed at the beginning of May. The ongoing removals, along with the rise in the number of accounts involved, underscores what has often been said about the trajectory of this problem. As foreign government operations become increasingly sophisticated, cybersecurity experts anticipate that Twitter, Facebook, and other companies will struggle to keep up with the proliferation of new false accounts that spring up to replace the old.

Presently, there does not appear to be any way of comprehensively addressing this issue or rooting out the disinformation campaigns at their source. The most effective strategy for countering those campaigns would presumably involve not only ongoing takedowns but also efforts to reach international audiences with more reputable information about the subjects targeted by disinformation networks. But this presents difficulties in its own right, since the originators of such campaigns also tend to utilize various means of suppressing information both within and about their country.

The various reports of disruptions to Iranian disinformation networks have been accompanied by even more reports regarding attacks on independent journalists and the press in general. This has taken the form of outright arrests, as well as last year’s mass seizure of assets belonging to persons who have contributed to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Persian service. And in a more subtle exertion of state power, sometimes the Iranian regime has simply stripped reporters of accreditation, leaving them unable to legally carry on their work even while they remain technically free of Iranian jail cells.

This is the circumstance under which Thomas Erdbrink, the Tehran correspondent for the New York Times, has been struggling for the past four months. The unexplained revocation of Erdbrink’s press credentials was only revealed publicly this week, though he has been unable to work since February. The newspaper’s decision to speak out about the situation was apparently motivated in part by frustration with vague but oft-repeated assurances that the reporter’s case would be explained and his accreditation restored.

As traditional and social media continue to function as a battleground of ideologies and a pathway for both accurate and false information, the Iranian regime may also find additional incentives to specifically target foreign reporters for arrest.

In parallel with crackdowns on foreign nationals and persons with connections to the West, the Iranian regime has lately been making concerted efforts to reaffirm moral principles grounded in the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. These efforts include expanded gender segregation and more aggressive enforcement of the country’s forced veiling laws, although the largely young and well-educated public has been pushing back against these strictures in seemingly ever-greater numbers.