By Edward Carney
Reuters News Agency issued a special report on Friday which detailed recent revelations about the global reach of Iran’s propaganda and disinformation networks. Reporters were able to identify 70 separate websites masquerading as legitimate news outlets but regularly disseminating talking points and even false information to promote policies and worldviews that are favorable to Iran’s theocratic dictatorship.
The report added that these 70 sites collectively use 16 languages to target audiences in at least 15 countries, ranging from regional neighbors like Afghanistan and Egypt to more distant partners like Russia, and even to Western democracies. Many of the disinformation outlets rely on American web service providers, and many have been shared blindly via social media, by users who failed to recognize the dubious nature of the source before latching onto a given report.
This sort of sharing procedure has historically been helped by false social media accounts that are also located within the Islamic Republic and likely affiliated with the Iranian government. The Reuters report called attention to earlier reports about the discovery and closure of these accounts by Facebook and Twitter. Facebook took down 82 pages in October alone, but not before they had reached roughly one million users in the United States and the United Kingdom.
And despite these closures, Reuters indicates that such disinformation campaigns are difficult to effectively combat. Pages continue to be closed as they are recognized for their role in the campaign, but this generally takes time, and in any event more of the same will spring up as long as the underlying network remains in place. Dismantling that network is a more difficult problem, and even though dozens of fake websites have been identified, their closure depends on participation from authorities in a wide range of host countries.
The Reuters report gives the impression that there will be a long-lasting contest between Iran and its adversaries, to alternately erect and then sweep away disinformation networks. But targeted closures are not the only tools that Western governments have at their disposal to disrupt such networks. And as Iran’s tactics of cyber warfare become more sophisticated, there is more and more pressure to attack the very root of Iranian disinformation, cyber-espionage, and cyber-terrorism.
On Thursday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran published a report detailing some aspects of this effort. It noted that two Iranian had been indicted in a US court for a large-scale ransomware attack, and sanctions had been imposed on persons who contributed to the scheme by converting bitcoin ransoms into Iranian rials. The report simultaneously highlighted some of the means by which Iran may finance its further operations in cyberspace and some of the means by which the US and its allies might cut off that financing.
Of course, the announcement of these targeted sanctions came less than a month after the re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian banking and oil exports that had been suspended under the 2015 nuclear deal. To the extent that these broader financial penalties force the Iranian regime to tighten its belt, they may also weaken the financing and limit the reach of the regime’s global propaganda network.
In fact, there were tentative signs last week that this trend was already underway. A report by Majalla indicated that the Iranian government was moving the foreign headquarters for its propaganda operations from Beirut to Damascus.
On one hand, this development points to the deeper infiltration that the Islamic Republic has achieved in places like Syria in recent years. But on the other hand, the shift away from an established headquarters seems to have been motivated largely by the need for cost-saving measures.
Following more than eight years of civil war, the cost of rent and infrastructure is naturally much lower in Syria than in Lebanon. But according to Majalla, the Iranian propaganda network had not been able to cover the costs of its established location for some time. Some of that network’s reporters have apparently not been paid since May – the same month that US President Donald Trump announced withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Although sanctions only began to return to Iran three months later, many global businesses reacted to the news by quickly pulling out of the Iranian market.
The coincidence between this development and the lack of payment for Iranian propagandists may point to the early successes of American economic pressures. And this may in turn suggest that there is strong potential for those same measures to undermine Iran’s disinformation networks over the long term.