The recent social protests in Iran have largely taken a back seat to the ongoing Ukraine crisis though they have fomented global support in the form of civil activism to show solidarity with women in Iran after the brutal detainment of Mahsa Amini by Iran’s “morality” police. Equally alarming for Tehran are the themes underlying the chants supporting Iranians’ freedom from tyrannical governmental policies. The current situation bears striking similarities to the 2017 “White Wednesdays” movement where Iranian women took to the streets waving white hijabs to protest the country’s hijab laws. For an authoritarian theocracy that relies on socio-economic control to sustain its male-dominated society, a women empowerment message has the potential to garner enough regional and global support to be a catalyst for change. Given the prior successes of the Color Revolutions, it is little surprise that Tehran wants to quash such sentiments before they have a chance of coming to a head.
It is therefore unsurprising that Tehran perceives an unmonitored, unrestricted flow of Internet data as a grave threat. That is not novel or new as any authoritarian regime is concerned about the power of uncensored information. But as any dual-edged weapon, Tehran recognizes the blade cuts both ways and the same technologies that threaten regime security can also be harnessed to support its own objectives. The weaponization of information comes with many nomenclatures. Propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, and influence operations are all tools that rely on crafted messaging to affect targeted audiences to achieve specific objectives. U.S. adversaries took advantage of the large traditional and unconventional press coverage around the 2016 U.S. presidential elections to execute multi-faceted cyber-enabled information campaigns whose purposes ranged from sowing discord, to influencing voter turnout, to raise public images of certain governments.
The Internet, particularly social media platforms in addition to online media outlets, have amplified any government’s ability to message, and thereby control narratives by controlling news cycles. The vast global appetite for the consumption of the latest news has created a constant demand for immediate reporting, taken out of context sound bites, and click-bait headlines. For those governments that understand the power of information, and the ability to make any news story a viral sensation, information-enabled activities are powerful ways to distract, confuse, and deceive. This is especially important for authoritarian regimes that rely on such tactics for internal control, as well as to communicate to both favorable and unfavorable global audiences.
Iran is proving adept at being an information manipulator, though perhaps not as on a grand of scale as its Chinese and Russian contemporaries. In the wake of the recent protesters, Iran has restricted Internet access, increased censorship, and engaged in counter messaging to mitigate the impact of shocking images and stories of the brutality coming out of Iran. Though these restrictive measures are typical standard practices for such regimes, they have been largely successful, though some users have circumvented controls via the use of secure, private connections. Being on the receiving end of adversarial information operations, Tehran finds itself in an ongoing information struggle, which has only further helped it refine and develop its own online perception management strategies over the past decade.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has demonstrated their ability to exploit traditional, broadcast, and online sources internally as well as to leverage their ability reach across borders in order to support Tehran’s objectives. Messaging focus is critical, changing in tone and subject depending on the intended target audience. For example, the IRGC disseminates information campaigns to Middle Eastern audiences where it holds influence over local proxies differently than it would when trying to appeal to Western audiences, where it uses American and European commentators who support Iran’s worldview. Further strengthening such efforts is Iran’s collaboration with China and Russia to reinforce themes generally directed against the United States and West in order to build bridges with receptive audiences in these spaces.
One Iranian official has described these online activities as “psychological warfare” and boasted about the success that Iranian cyber battalions’ disinformation campaigns have achieved by controlling the narrative to Tehran’s advantage via numerous fake Twitter accounts. Iran’s information campaigns are multifaceted, targeting a variety of targets internally as well as globally. In addition to dissidents, human rights, labor, political activists, and intellectuals, Iran has expanded the reach of these activities to include other regions outside the Middle East. Perhaps more worrisome is Iran’s increasing involvement in using such operations against the United States. Aside from its efforts in the 2016 election, in November 2021 two Iranian nationals were charged by the Department of Justice in a conspiracy to intimidate and influence American voters and undermine voter confidence in connection with the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
While substantial attention has been levied against all disinformation campaigns to the extent that few are surprised of new efforts being exposed in the press, governments continue to deploy them suggesting that their utility still has merit regardless of what is reported. And because Iran is constantly engaging in information campaigns, it is continually improving upon them, showing signs that it is learning from previous campaigns to fuel future ones. Notably, instead of embracing larger information efforts with the hopes of reaching more targets with the goal of influencing some, Iran seems to prefer more focused missions. In mid-2021, Iranian actors went after Israeli activists in a small, concerted effortimplementing harder-to-detect methods and using alternative channels like WhatsApp to evade detection by big tech. The actors weren’t detected for several weeks after they had first started, suggesting that priority and high-value campaigns may turn to these tactics to increase operational success, leaving the more obvious, broader campaigns to distract those monitoring for these types of activities.
Controlling the narrative has become an instrumental tool at all levels of politics and one to be leveraged against political opponents to obtain a desired outcome. It can be deployed both covertly and overtly to influence public opinion, degrade support, or back contrary opinions and positions. When done successfully, controlling the narrative can increase internal pressure and make it easier to undermine or shift policy. Further exacerbating the situation, in a global environment where there is a deluge of such activities happening both internally and externally, stopping them is an exercise in futility. There are simply too many of them occurring, and those that are exposed and stopped can be quickly replaced with other efforts.
As Western ideals continue to clash with Iran, the entity best able to control the narrative will come out ahead of the ongoing culture war. And that requires a firm understanding of what successful messaging looks like when applied to the target to which it is intended. This will ultimately have to be more than just sowing discord, creating distrust, or casting aversions against the government in power. It will require the ability to measure the impacts of campaigns by achieving a quantifiable and qualifiable result. The government able to do that will gain a significant advantage in the information space.