Iran’s social media smear campaign against Arab states

Iran’s social media smear campaign against Arab states

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Reuters)

Since the establishment of the Iranian regime in 1979, one of its most consistent foreign policies has been anchored in projecting the US as its major adversary. Nevertheless, the regime also appears to be increasingly investing significant political and financial capital in depicting some Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, as Iran’s main rivals.
One of the methods that the regime is utilizing is to specifically target Arab audiences in order to increase antagonism toward some Arab states and officials. While Iran’s deployment of hard power is well known in the Middle East, the Iranian leaders are now also shrewdly capitalizing on soft power, such as the use of social media in the Arabic language.
Recently, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute examined many Arabic Twitter accounts that were linked with the Iranian government. The accounts were reportedly engaged in coordinated manipulation and misinformation campaigns against several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Such a development ought to be regarded as direct interference in the internal affairs of Arab states. The report said that “Iranian interference in the politics of Arab countries has become more self-evident since the Arab Spring of 2011.”
Since these accounts are most likely created with fake names, inaccurate origins such as being based in Arab countries, and with their users communicating in fluent Arabic, it makes it extremely difficult for the Arab population to detect their inauthentic nature. This also makes it tricky for legitimate news organizations and credible journalists to provide accurate coverage in the Arab world and truthfully inform the public about critical social, political and cultural landscapes in the region.
Such misinformation campaigns against the Arab world are also likely carried out on other popular social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram. For example, researchers with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab recently analyzed Facebook accounts that were linked to the Iranian government. They stated that these accounts appeared to have been designed to strengthen views “in line with the Iranian government’s strategic narratives.”

It is imperative to set up a joint platform to effectively detect and reverse engineer the Iranian regime’s destructive behavior.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The Iranian regime undoubtedly benefits from intentionally misleading Arab audiences. By relying on the latest technology, the regime is attempting to alter public opinion in the region in its favor, and incite antagonism toward several Arab governments and officials in order to advance the ruling clique’s revolutionary, ideological and geopolitical interests.
In addition, the Iranian leaders are trying to create specific narratives in the Arab world by employing various methods, such as generating and disseminating fabricated headlines and videos, and propagating fake news and doctored pictures.
One of the common narratives that Tehran spreads is the idea that Bashar Assad and his forces are legitimate. This is because Iran is galvanizing support for Assad, as well as Tehran’s Shiite militias and proxies across the region.
Iran also attempts to mislead the Arab world by spreading the narrative that its military operations and political and economic influences in Arab countries — such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen — are solely for humanitarian purposes and for fighting “extremist” forces such as Daesh.
To amplify the regime’s social media efforts, high-ranking officials incite antagonism toward several Arab states by utilizing confrontational and incendiary rhetoric and blaming them for domestic or regional conflicts.
In a nutshell, the Iranian regime is increasingly interfering in the domestic affairs of Arab nations and inciting hatred and antagonism toward several Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, through popular social media platforms. To counter the Iranian regime’s malignant activities, awareness should be raised among the public regarding the accuracy of the information they view on social media and the role that the Iranian regime’s agents may be playing in distorting the facts and hiding the truth. In addition, it is imperative that the powers in the region cooperate to set up a joint platform, through which they can effectively detect and reverse engineer the Iranian regime’s destructive behavior.

  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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