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 not safer under Elon Musk, says former head of trust and safety

Twitter not safer under Elon Musk, says former head of trust and safety
Updated 30 November 2022

Twitter not safer under Elon Musk, says former head of trust and safety

Twitter not safer under Elon Musk, says former head of trust and safety
  • Twitter under Musk began to stray from its adherence to written and publicly available policies toward content decisions made unilaterally by Musk, which Roth cited as a reason for his resignation

CALIFORNIA: Twitter's former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth on Tuesday said the social media company was not safer under new owner Elon Musk, warning in his first interview since resigning this month that the company no longer had enough staff for safety work.
Roth had tweeted after Musk's takeover that by some measures, Twitter safety had improved under the billionaire's ownership.
Asked in an interview at the Knight Foundation conference on Tuesday whether he still felt that way, Roth said: "No."
Roth was a Twitter veteran who helped steer the social media platform through several watershed decisions, including the move to permanently suspend its most famous user, former U.S. President Donald Trump, last year.
His departure further rattled advertisers, many of whom backed away from Twitter after Musk laid off half of the staff, including many involved with content moderation.
Before Musk assumed the helm at Twitter, about 2,200 people globally were focused on content moderation work, said Roth. He said he did not know the number after the acquisition because the corporate directory had been turned off.
Twitter under Musk began to stray from its adherence to written and publicly available policies toward content decisions made unilaterally by Musk, which Roth cited as a reason for his resignation.
"One of my limits was if Twitter starts being ruled by dictatorial edict rather than by policy ... there's no longer a need for me in my role, doing what I do," he said.
The revamp of the Twitter Blue premium subscription, which would allow users to pay for a verified checkmark on their account, launched despite warnings and advice from the trust and safety team, Roth said.
The launch was quickly beset by spammers impersonating major public companies such as Eli Lilly, Nestle and Lockheed Martin.
Roth also said Tuesday that Twitter erred in restricting the dissemination of a New York Post article that made claims about then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son shortly before the 2020 presidential election.
But he defended Twitter's decision to permanently suspend Trump for risk of further incitement of violence after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
"We saw the clearest possible example of what it looked like for things to move from online to off," Roth said. "We saw people dead in the Capitol."
Musk tweeted on Nov. 19 that Trump's account would be reinstated after a slim majority voted in favor of the move in a surprise Twitter poll.

 


Twitter blue verified set to launch on Apple’s iOS app — Information

Smartphone with displayed Twitter app is seen placed on Apple logo in this illustration taken, November 29, 2022. (REUTERS)
Smartphone with displayed Twitter app is seen placed on Apple logo in this illustration taken, November 29, 2022. (REUTERS)
Updated 30 November 2022

Twitter blue verified set to launch on Apple’s iOS app — Information

Smartphone with displayed Twitter app is seen placed on Apple logo in this illustration taken, November 29, 2022. (REUTERS)

SAN FRANCISCO: Twitter Inc’s Blue verified service is scheduled to roll out on Friday, but only on Apple’s iOS mobile software, the Information reported on Tuesday, citing a person briefed on the plans.
As Twitter plans to launch the subscription offering via an update to Twitter’s iOS app, it needs Apple’s approval as part of the standard app review process, the report said, adding that the company would update its Android app later.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
This comes a day after new owner Elon Musk accused Apple of threatening to block the Twitter from its app store without saying why in a series of tweets that also said the iPhone maker had stopped advertising on the social media platform.
The billionaire CEO of Twitter and Tesla said Apple was pressuring Twitter over content moderation demands.

 


Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange

Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange
Updated 29 November 2022

Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange

Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange
  • Guardian, NYT, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel editors and publishers said the indictment threatens freedom of the press.

WASHINGTON: The United States should end its prosecution of Julian Assange, leading media outlets from the United States and Europe that had collaborated with the WikiLeaks founder said on Monday, citing press freedom concerns.
“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” editors and publishers of the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País said in an open letter.
Assange is wanted by US authorities on 18 counts, including a spying charge, related to WikiLeaks’ release of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables. His supporters say he is an anti-establishment hero who has been victimized because he exposed US wrongdoing, including in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Monday marked 12 years since those media outlets collaborated to release excerpts from over 250,000 documents obtained by Assange in the so-called “Cablegate” leak.
The material was leaked to WikiLeaks by the then-American soldier Chelsea Manning and revealed the inner workings of US diplomacy around the globe. The documents exposed “corruption, diplomatic scandals, and spy affairs on an international scale,” the letter said.
In August, a group of journalists and lawyers sued the CIA and its former director, Mike Pompeo, over allegations the intelligence agency spied on them when they visited Assange during his stay in Ecuador’s embassy in London.
Assange spent seven years in the embassy before being dragged out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions. He has remained in prison in London while his extradition case is decided. If extradited to the United States, he faces a sentence of up to 175 years in an American maximum security prison.
His legal team has appealed to the High Court in London to block his extradition in a legal battle that has dragged on for more than a decade.
“Publishing is not a crime,” the media outlets said in their letter on Monday.


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.