How Iran is manipulating the online narrative to cover up its violent crackdown on protests

Special Amid violent protests in Iran that have led to more than 90 deaths, the Tehran regime is resorting to information warfare tactics honed over decades to slow and disrupt demonstrator activities. (AFP)
Amid violent protests in Iran that have led to more than 90 deaths, the Tehran regime is resorting to information warfare tactics honed over decades to slow and disrupt demonstrator activities. (AFP)
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Updated 06 October 2022

How Iran is manipulating the online narrative to cover up its violent crackdown on protests

How Iran is manipulating the online narrative to cover up its violent crackdown on protests
  • Images of police brutality meted out on young Iranian protesters have gone viral on social platforms
  • To counter the spread of information, the regime has cut internet access and clamped down on social media

DUBAI: As anti-government protests in Iran enter their third week, the death toll has continued to rise, with more than 90 people reportedly having lost their lives in the wave of unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini.

The 22-year-old’s death at the hands of Iran’s morality police, the Gasht-e Ershad, unleashed an outpouring of anger in almost every province over the strict policing of personal freedoms and the deteriorating standard of living. 

Iran’s large diaspora, spread across Europe and North America, has joined the protests in solidarity, with large demonstrations taking place outside Iranian embassies in Western capitals.

Regime authorities have so far acknowledged the death of 41 people since the unrest began yet have refused to give in to demands to relax the strict dress code imposed on women, including the mandatory headscarf.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s ultra-conservative president, has dismissed the anti-regime protests as a “conspiracy” orchestrated by outside enemies and has vowed to “deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquility.”




Tehran has attempted to limit the spread of information about nationwide protests with blocks on mobile internet. (ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

In a statement on Sunday, he said: “At a time when the Islamic Republic was overcoming economic problems to become more active in the region and in the world, the enemies came into play with the intention of isolating the country, but they failed in this conspiracy.”

Videos and photographs emerging from Iran on social media tell a different story. Shocking images of police brutality meted out on young protesters have gone viral on social platforms, eliciting international condemnation. 

To counter the spread of images and information, the regime has limited internet access and clamped down on applications like WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram — claiming the move was necessary in the interests of “national security.”

Tehran is no stranger to this kind of information warfare. The regime has adopted this strategy multiple times since the proliferation of smartphones and social media in order to control the narrative. 

“Shutting down mobile internet services has become a go-to for the Iranian government when dealing with civil unrest,” Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at monitoring firm Kentik said.




Regime authorities have so far acknowledged the death of 41 people since the unrest began. (AFP)

Protesters have been getting around the regime’s internet controls using secure private connections. They have also been sharing footage and details about forthcoming protests with outlets like the London-based broadcaster Iran International.

Iran’s misinformation strategy is as old as the regime itself. In the 1970s, the revolutionaries fighting to topple the US-backed monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, sought to portray their leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, as a freedom fighter.

Khomeini’s close entourage, which included Western-educated advisers, helped him weave a message that appealed to Iranians inside and outside the country, cleverly modifying his words to appeal to Western audiences. 

Their methods proved extremely effective. Western journalists, who at the time relied on the translations given to them by Khomeini’s advisers, willingly broadcast these messages to the world.

Today, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps utilizes a stable of media outlets, including Fars News, Tasnim and others, to set the political agenda and undermine domestic dissent. 




Protests have spread across Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini after the young woman was arrested by morality police. (AFP)

The IRGC also uses these platforms to broadcast propaganda about operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East where the regime holds sway with local proxies. 

At the same time, the English-language state broadcaster Press TV is used to appeal to viewers in the West, often featuring American and European commentators who support Tehran’s policies and worldview. 

In March this year, Ruhollah Mo’men Nasab, former head of the Iranian Culture Ministry’s Digital Media Center, lifted the lid on how the regime disrupts the flow of information and discredits activists.

Describing his work as “psychological warfare,” Nasab boasted of developing software and “cyber battalions” to manipulate the narrative on Twitter through fake accounts. 

Arash Azizi, a history and Middle East specialist at New York University, says the regime has been developing its techniques for internet information manipulation for more than a decade. 




Shocking images of police brutality meted out on young protesters have gone viral on social platforms, eliciting international condemnation. (AFP)

“Perhaps the first Twitter revolution was in 2009 as events were unfolding in Iran,” Azizi told Arab News, referring to that year’s mass protests, known as the Green Movement, which exploded in response to the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

“Nowadays, Iranians use a variety of online tools to get their voice out, which is why the government has tried to shut down the internet entirely,” said Azizi. 

“Iranians abroad and many tech experts, however, are playing an active role in dominating social media with messages about what’s taking place.”

A Twitter account called @1500tasvir, which is run by a group of 10 Iranian activists based inside and outside the country, was first set up in 2019 during the wave of protests sweeping Iran at that time. 

Since the latest outbreak of unrest, the account has posted thousands of videos captured by protesters. One of @1500tasvir’s contributors warned that the regime’s limiting of mobile internet services could undermine the protests.




Thousands took to the streets in violent protests in the city of Tehran. (AFP)

“When you see other people feel the same way, you get braver. You are more enthusiastic to do something about it. When the internet is cut off, you feel alone,” the contributor said.

In response to the regime’s internet shutdowns, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, pledged Washington would “make sure the Iranian people are not kept isolated and in the dark.” 

On Sept. 23, the US Treasury issued Iran General License D-2, adjusting sanctions rules to allow technology companies to offer the Iranian people more options for secure, outside platforms and services to help counter the regime’s narrative.

Unable to completely snuff out the spread of information online, the regime has instead resorted to its time-tested strategy of detaining social media users whose material gains widespread traction. 

According to state news agency IRNA, Hossein Mahini, a well-known football player, has been arrested “by the order of the judicial authorities for supporting and encouraging riots on his social media page.” 




Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cutting off her ponytail during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022. (AFP)

Another high-profile detainee is Shervin Hajipour, a popular singer who composed a piece using people’s tweets on Amini’s death and the protests. He was reportedly taken into custody last week after his song reached 40 million views on Instagram. 

Although authorities did not immediately confirm Hajipour’s arrest, Mohsen Mansouri, Tehran’s provincial governor, vowed to “take measures against celebrities who contributed to fueling the protests.”

To get around the internet shutdown, some activists have now resorted to distributing flyers to advertise the time and place of planned protests, indicating the regime has failed to quell the unrest.

“They’re yet to have a way of controlling the narrative,” Azizi told Arab News. “The vast majority of Iranians can now see the brutality of this corrupt regime clearly. There have even been letters of solidarity with the protesters from Shiite seminary students in Qom and Mashhad.

“Internationally, thousands have come out in support of the protesters. Even those who usually defend this regime in the Western media are now silent.”

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Twitter owner Musk signals new ‘war’ against Apple

Twitter owner Musk signals new ‘war’ against Apple
Updated 29 November 2022

Twitter owner Musk signals new ‘war’ against Apple

Twitter owner Musk signals new ‘war’ against Apple
  • Musk on Monday also called Apple’s fee on transactions through its App Store a “secret 30 percent tax”

SAN FRANCISCO: Twitter owner Elon Musk on Monday opened fire against Apple over its tight control of what is allowed on the App Store, saying the iPhone maker has threatened to oust his recently acquired social media platform.
Musk also joined the chorus crying foul over a 30 percent fee Apple collects on transactions via its App Store — the sole gateway for applications to get onto its billion plus mobile devices.
A series of tweets fired off by Musk included a meme of a car with his first name on it veering onto a highway off-ramp labeled “Go to War,” instead of continuing onwards toward “Pay 30 percent.”
The billionaire CEO also tweeted that Apple has “threatened to withhold Twitter from its App Store, but won’t tell us why.”
Apple did not immediately reply to an AFP request for comment.
Both Apple and Google require social networking services on their app stores to have effective systems for moderating harmful or abusive content.
But since taking over Twitter last month, Musk has cut around half of Twitter’s workforce, including many employees tasked with fighting disinformation, while an unknown number of others have voluntarily quit.
He has also reinstated previously banned accounts, including that of former president Donald Trump.
Yoel Roth, the former head of trust and safety at Twitter who left after Musk took over, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “failure to adhere to Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be catastrophic,” and risk “expulsion from their app stores.”
Describing himself as a “free speech absolutist,” Musk believes that all content permitted by law should be allowed on Twitter, and on Monday described his actions as a “revolution against online censorship in America.”
He also tweeted that he planned to publish “Twitter Files on free speech suppression,” but without clarifying what data he had in mind to share with the public.
Though Musk says Twitter is seeing record high engagement with him at the helm, his approach has startled the company’s major moneymaker — advertisers.
In recent weeks, half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers have announced they are suspending or have otherwise “seemingly stopped advertising on Twitter,” an analysis conducted by nonprofit watchdog group Media Matters found.
Musk on Monday accused Apple of also having “mostly stopped advertising on Twitter.”
“Do they hate free speech in America?” he asked, before replying with a tweet tagging Apple CEO Tim Cook.
In the first three months of 2022, Apple was the top advertiser on Twitter, spending some $48 million on ads which accounted for more than 4 percent of the social media platform’s revenue, according to a Washington Post report citing an internal Twitter document.
Sarah Roberts, an information studies expert at University of California, Los Angeles, told AFP that “Musk didn’t understand that Twitter itself was a brand, had cachet.”
“Now companies don’t even want to be associated with it. It’s not even that they worry about the content. Twitter is a tainted brand, a brand non grata companies don’t want to be associated with,” she added.

Musk on Monday also called Apple’s fee on transactions through its App Store a “secret 30 percent tax.”
He shared a video released last year by Fortnite maker Epic Games that portrayed Apple as an oppressor in a mocking spin on a famous “1984” ad for Macintosh computers.
Apple has clashed in court with Epic, which has sought to break Apple’s grip on the App Store, accusing the iPhone maker of operating a monopoly in its shop for digital goods or services.
A federal judge last year ordered Apple to loosen control of its App Store payment options, but said Epic had failed to prove that antitrust violations had taken place.
Musk’s controversial moves at Twitter, along with the possibility he will need to sell more Tesla shares to keep the social media platform afloat, has taken shine off of the electric car company and its stock, according to Wedbush analyst Dan Ives.
“The Musk vs Apple new battle is not what investors want to see,” Ives said in a tweet.
“(Wall) Street wants less drama, not more as this Twitter situation remains the gift that keeps on giving for the Tesla bears with every day a new chapter.”

 


Fox News reporter deletes inaccurate video after being challenged by Arab News reporter on TikTok

Fox News reporter deletes inaccurate video after being challenged by Arab News reporter on TikTok
Updated 29 November 2022

Fox News reporter deletes inaccurate video after being challenged by Arab News reporter on TikTok

Fox News reporter deletes inaccurate video after being challenged by Arab News reporter on TikTok
  • American sports reporter Jenny Taft said, ‘I just had to go through a special gate in Qatar for ladies only. Um, I don’t feel that special,” while pulling a sarcastic and smug face
  • Lama Alhamawi explained that gender-segregated gates reflect respect for personal boundaries, and that journalists have a responsibility not to spread misinformation or biased rhetoric

LONDON: A Fox Sports reporter whose post on TikTok poked fun at gender-segregated entrances and security-searches at World Cup venues in Qatar deleted her video after being challenged by an Arab News reporter on Monday.

“I just had to go through a special gate in Qatar for ladies only. Um, I don’t feel that special,” Jenny Taft of Fox Sports said in the video while pulling a sarcastic and smug face.

Arab News reporter Lama Alhamawi took the opportunity to explain to Taft the reason for this and promptly put the American reporter firmly in her place.

“As a fellow reporter, as a fellow journalist that’s years younger than you, that’s traveled to different countries covering various topics around the world, I’m going to give you some advice,” Alhamawi said.

“As journalists, we have a responsibility to uphold. We have a responsibility to do our due diligence to fully understand and investigate a topic before spreading any information, misinformation or biased rhetoric, as you did in this video.

“Now, let’s talk about the special gate you talked about … It’s a matter of one word that perfectly explains the special gate: respect. It’s a matter of respecting someone’s boundaries, their beliefs, their religious beliefs. A woman does not want to be searched by men, a man does not want to be searched by a woman.

“It’s a matter of respecting someone’s religious beliefs and boundaries and making them feel comfortable as they’re entering this country. Now, you hinted at the idea that it was based on discrimination or sexism. But it’s far from that: It’s a level of respect. The best word to describe it is respect.

Alhamawi told Taft it is about providing a level of respect and not aimed at being discriminatory. 

“Now, judging by the way you conducted your video and executed it, that’s a word that’s foreign to you and something that you maybe don’t quite understand.”

Alhamawi garnered praise and support for calling out the veteran sports journalist.

“Absolutely spot on! I’m sick of seeing ignorant people judge,” one user wrote.

“Thank you Lama, for shedding light on this and for replying to it the best way possible,” said another.

Someone else wrote: “Beautifully said. Thank you for educating everyone with such grace.”

Following Alhamawai’s video and the barrage of supportive comments it attracted, Taft deleted her video.


Irish watchdog fines Meta 265M euros in latest privacy case

Meta's logo can be seen on a sign at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2022. (AP)
Meta's logo can be seen on a sign at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2022. (AP)
Updated 29 November 2022

Irish watchdog fines Meta 265M euros in latest privacy case

Meta's logo can be seen on a sign at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2022. (AP)
  • Meta said the data had been “scraped” from Facebook using tools designed to help people find their friends through phone numbers using search and contact import features

LONDON: Irish regulators slapped Facebook parent Meta with a 265 million-euro ($277 million) fine Monday, the company’s latest punishment for breaching strict European Union data privacy rules.
The Data Protection Commission said Meta Platforms infringed sections of the EU rules, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, that require technical and organizational measures aimed at protecting user data.
The watchdog opened an investigation last year into news reports that data on more 533 million users was found dumped online. The data was found on a website for hackers and included names, Facebook IDs, phone numbers, locations, birthdates and email addresses for people from more than 100 countries, according to the reports.
Meta said the data had been “scraped” from Facebook using tools designed to help people find their friends through phone numbers using search and contact import features. The watchdog said it investigated the automated scraping carried out between May 2018 and September 2019.
The company said it had “cooperated fully” with the Irish watchdog.
“We made changes to our systems during the time in question, including removing the ability to scrape our features in this way using phone numbers,” Meta said in a statement. “Unauthorized data scraping is unacceptable and against our rules.”
Along with the fine, the commission said it also imposed on Meta a “range of corrective measures,” which weren’t specified.
When asked if Meta would appeal, a spokesman said, “We are still reviewing this decision carefully.”
It’s the latest in a series of punishments that the Irish watchdog has levied against Meta over the past two years.
The company, based in Menlo Park, California, has its European headquarters in Dublin, which makes the Irish authority its lead privacy regulator under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, in a system known as “one-stop shop.”
The Irish watchdog fined Meta-owned Instagram 405 million euros in September after it found that the platform mishandled teenagers’ personal information. Meta was fined 17 million euro fines in March for its handling of a dozen data breach notifications.
Last year, the watchdog fined Meta’s chat service WhatsApp 225 million euros for violating rules on sharing people’s data with other Meta companies.

 


Former Shahid exec launches regional production company The Yard Films

Former Shahid exec launches regional production company The Yard Films
Updated 29 November 2022

Former Shahid exec launches regional production company The Yard Films

Former Shahid exec launches regional production company The Yard Films
  • Jakob Mejlhede Andersen co-founded the business, which will be based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with former Shine International CEO Camilla Hammer
  • The executive team also includes Phil Rostom, a 15-year veteran of the industry in the Middle East and North Africa

DUBAI: Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, former chief content officer of MBC’s streaming platform Shahid, has teamed up with former Shine International CEO Camilla Hammer to launch The Yard Films, a regional production and development company.

The executive team behind the business, which will be based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, also includes Phil Rostom, an industry veteran who has worked across the Middle East and North Africa for more than 15 years.

The founders said the new company will develop and produce original scripted and non-scripted content for local and international markets, targeted in particular at millennial and Gen Z audiences.

Andersen, who was involved in the production of more than 200 Nordic and Arabic scripted and non-scripted projects during his tenures at Shahid and Stockholm-based streaming service Viaplay, said: “It’s our ambition to produce and deliver groundbreaking content for the buoyant Arabic streaming market.”

“We aim to work in partnerships with the excellent local creative scene across the entire MENA region.”

Hammer said that the company’s team believes “in partnerships within the region and internationally.”

She added: “There is a wealth of stories across the Middle East that have a strong interest not only from local but also international platforms.”


Iranian filmmaker Reza Dormishian barred from travel, passport confiscated

Iranian filmmaker Reza Dormishian barred from travel, passport confiscated
Updated 28 November 2022

Iranian filmmaker Reza Dormishian barred from travel, passport confiscated

Iranian filmmaker Reza Dormishian barred from travel, passport confiscated
  • Dormishian is only the latest in a long line of filmmakers to face Iran’s arbitrary detention policies

DUBAI: Iran has barred filmmaker Reza Dormishian from leaving the country. 

Dormishian was due to travel to the International Film Festival of India in Goa, where his film “A Minor” was scheduled to play.

On his arrival at the airport, his passport was confiscated. It is unclear if he was arrested and, if so, what the charges will be.

However, it is understood that the authorities’ action is the result of his recent social media posts about the Iranian government.

“Throughout the nationwide protests in Iran, Dormishian shared various posts on his Instagram account to show support for the significant developments,” sources close to him said, according to media reports.

In his most recent post, Dormishian had said: “I would die for a hair strand of Iranian people.

“I would die for the youth who are gone with the wind, from Balochistan to Kurdistan.

“What is my curfew worth?”

 

 

Dormishian is only the latest in a long line of filmmakers to face Iran’s arbitrary detention policies.

In July, acclaimed director Jafar Panahi was ordered to serve a six-year jail sentence, handed down a decade ago, after he attempted to find information about fellow filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, who had been detained earlier.

Last month, Iranian filmmaker Mani Haghighi was prevented from leaving Iran to attend the BFI London Film Festival, where his latest film “Subtraction” was being screened.

And earlier this month, co-directors Farnaz and Mohammadreza Jurabchian were barred from traveling to the Netherlands for the International Documentary Film Festival where their film “Silent House” had its world premiere.

Directed by Dariush Mehrjui and produced by Dormishian, “A Minor” played in India on Thursday and Friday last week.