Twitter announced on Wednesday that it had removed approximately 130 accounts that apparently originated in Iran and were attempting to disrupt conversation surrounding the first US presidential debate. The takedown is indicative of an ongoing trend of Iran’s regime use of social media disinformation tactics, and how Iran’s lobbyists in the West are misusing the social media to spread the regime’s talking points.
In February of this year, it was reported that Facebook, like the recent action by Twitter, had removed hundreds of deceptive accounts that were linked to Iran and other countries.
Takedowns by both Twitter and Facebook have been a semi-regular occurrence for several years. The current persistence of that phenomenon is a sign of how difficult the problem is to manage since it means that bots and trolls have rebounded even after millions of those accounts were deleted from Twitter in a far-reaching sweep of the platform in May and June of 2018. And the difficulty is arguably compounded by the impact that false and misleading accounts have beyond their immediate interactions.
Since the 2018 sweep, Twitter and Facebook have made several further announcements regarding the deletion of accounts associated with Iran, and a handful of other nations. In some cases, the accompanying media reports indicated that before being identified as fake, some of the deleted accounts managed to get their content published in various local news outlets. This introduces the potential for that same content to be cited in other outlets with directly referencing accounts that have since been exposed as illegitimate.
This organic distribution of manufactured talking points is a tactic that Iranian propagandists have reportedly used to their own advantage. Critics of the Iranian regime, including the main democratic opposition the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), have long warned about the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) exerting influence over Western media through its own agents and a “network of friendly journalists.”
The MEK has been the direct target of much of that influence, with the MOIS channeling talking points about the group through its lobbyists in the West and so-called former members of MEK.
The growing prevalence of social media has made the recruitment and the subsequent MOIS operations easier and more extensive. While the direct placement of MOIS talking points in Western media remains uniquely valuable, the Iranian regime can achieve similar, though narrower, objectives by simply bombarding social media with fake accounts in hopes that their talking points will be taken up by other users and ultimately make their way into professional media and the public consciousness.
It is impossible to say what the details of those talking points would have been if the recently-deleted accounts had been allowed to continue operation. But there is a good chance that their content would have included familiar smears against the MEK, which has long been identified as the leading voice for democracy in Iran and the principal threat to the mullahs’ hold on power. That threat has only become more evident over the past three years, as even leading regime officials have credited the MEK with leading two nationwide anti-government uprisings.
This in turn has made the disruption and de-legitimization of the MEK more imperative for the Iranian regime. In June 2018, two Iranian operatives under the command of a high-ranking diplomat attempted to transport an explosive device to a pro-democracy rally in France which had been organized by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. After that plot was disrupted by European authorities, the MEK reported an upsurge in propaganda operations by the Iranian regime, both inside Iran and abroad.
The occasional effectiveness of those efforts was underscored by two German court cases, one in March 2019 and one in July 2020, which resulted in two mainstream publications being ordered to remove false allegations against the MEK. The offending content included references to abuse of the group’s lay membership by its leaders at their self-built compound, Ashraf 3, in Albania. Such allegations are essentially identical to those that had been applied to the MEK’s prior residence in Iraq, Camp Ashraf.
In both cases, the claims could be traced back to the MOIS, through self-described former members of the MEK who had been recruited to work against it. The same is true of claims about militant training and terrorist strategies used by the MEK. Although these claims actually resulted in the organization being designated as a terrorist group in the 1990s, that designation was ultimately removed following 19 separate court cases in both the US and Europe, which failed to reveal any evidence of wrongdoing by MEK members or the organization itself.
In theory, such developments make it more difficult for the same allegations to find traction in mainstream media outlets. But recent publications by Iran’s lobbyists in the West and other MOIS assets demonstrate that this has not been the case in practice. In any event, Tehran’s increasingly sophisticated cyber activities create opportunities to disseminate the same talking points without necessarily going to the trouble of cultivating direct relationships with professional journalists and newspaper editors.
It is easy to identify Iranian propaganda by the familiarity of its talking points where the MEK is concerned. For years the Iranian regime has used all of its resources and spent millions of dollars to portray the MEK as a cult to depict that the MEK is not an alternative to its regime, and now you can see this taking point in every piece, article, or tweet of its apologists and lobbyists. Therefore if you want to identify the apologists and lobbyists of the Iranian regime, just look for the talking points of the regime in their writings. You will find that all of them use the same allegations, in particular, the label of “cult”.