By Jubin Katiraie
Conventional wisdom has it that authoritarian states use propaganda to pave the path for suppressing dissidents and executing extreme measures. They use media outlets and social media to whitewash their crimes and disguise victims as offenders. To achieve their goals, authoritarians have form armies of fake accounts who merely reiterate their message in social media. In this respect, millions of unemployed people are good targets for recruitment and improving propaganda operations with minimum capital.
Fake armies are usually known as “anonymous” experts, sources who spoke on the condition of “anonymity,” or an official who prefers to remain unknown due to the issue’s sensitivity. However, the question is why these reliable sources cover their identity while they repeat officials’ comments in other languages?
State-backed propaganda missions have drastically intensified inside Iran and abroad in parallel with the escalation of the Iranian people’s protests. For instance, in a coordinating operation, Iran’s cyber-army attempted to demonize hundreds of thousands of protesters who peacefully took to streets. Cyber agents openly supported the execution of detained protesters and rudely expressed their happiness for hanging Mostafa Salehi and Navid Afkari.
Government-linked accounts explicitly repeated authorities’ false accusations and said, “Detainees of the November 2019 protests have been sentenced to death due to their involvement in an armed robbery.” Also, they compare the situation of Iran under the religious dictatorship with the status of democratic countries like France or the United States.
“Events like the November 2019 protests are taking place everywhere around the world; they are naturally happening in France or the United States,” they post on messaging apps. However, they intentionally avoid saying the whole story. They do not say that protesters in other countries are not being shot systematically. Furthermore, even Iranian state media affirmed that many police officers and security agents had been tried for using excessive force against demonstrators.
However, Iranian authorities have never prosecuted any police officer for targeting barehanded protesters during the November protests or even shooting down a commercial airliner in January. Instead, they captured many citizens and bystanders and tortured them to extract televised confessions about things they had never done. Afterward, they sentenced the poor detainees to inhuman sentences to terrify society.
Once again, they deliberately circumvent the truth to insinuate their audiences that protesters deserve merciless punishments. They would truly like to style rights groups and activists as defenders of implementing the death penalty. Then, Iran’s cyber army blamed activists for controversial behaviors.
The Iranian government’s cyber agents simultaneously paved the path for the execution of protesters. They trended ‘#Execute’ on Persian-language Twitter and demanded the implementation of the death penalty against protesters, arguing that death-row demonstrators had committed murder, invasion of privacy, armed robbery, and bombing attacks.
All the while, Babak Paknia, the lawyer of Amirhossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi, three youths arrested during the 2019 protests, rejected all accusations and announced there is no relevant evidence to his clients’ cases. “As the lawyer of the case, I say that there is no charge of murder, invasion, armed robbery or bombing in the case; The video published in cyberspace, which is stolen from a store, has nothing to do with the case of our clients. If you have no faith, at least be honest,” Paknia tweeted.
به عنوان وکیل پرونده عرض می کنم،هیچ اتهامی ناظر بر قتل،تجاوز،سرقت با اسلحه گرم و بمب گذاری در پرونده وجود ندارد؛ فیلم منتشره در فضای مجازی که از فروشگاهی سرقت می شود اصلا ربطی به پرونده موکلین ما ندارد.اگر دین ندارید لااقل آزاده باشید#امیرحسین_مرادی #سعید_تمجیدی #محمد_رجبی
— Babak Paknia (@DrPaknia) July 16, 2020
However, the ayatollahs’ anonymous soldiers extended their propaganda operations in other aspects. To justify and conceal crimes committed by authorities and security forces, they assault Kurdish porters (Kolbars) and even charity organizations.
“Kolbars were shot and killed due to smuggling cargo or drug” and “Managing boards of non-profit charity organizations are in touch with the enemies and demonize the country’s situation under the guise of charity activities” are seen in Persian-language posts on social media as a part of the Iranian cyber army’s mission.
In addition to the mentioned misinformation campaigns, Iranian authorities constantly spread fake news about dissidents. For instance, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the intelligence department of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are annually printing and producing hundreds of books, movies, and TV series, as well as publishing thousands of articles to demonize the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) organization.
As a part of the ayatollahs’ misinformation campaigns, cyber agents are tasked to circulate these allegations in social media apps to disturb the organization’s reputation among citizens. These activities have been amplified in the past years. This shows the growth of the opposition’s popularity among the people, especially between the young generation, which has prompted forty members of the Parliament (Majlis) to submit a plan for banning all messaging apps.
The continuation of Iran’s propaganda missions despite the country’s dire economic condition and efforts to shut down social media and launch a state-control network apparently reveals authorities’ concerns about cyberspace. Earlier, the supreme leader had highlighted security threats imposed by social media. “If I was not the leader of ‘the Islamic Revolution,’ I definitely became the head of the country’s [department] for cyber affairs,” Khamenei said in November 2014.
He had also compared the importance of cyber activities with the entire Islamic Revolution, saying, “The cyberspace is as important as the Islamic Revolution.” The Iranian government never accepts its failure in the domination of cyberspace. However, these remarks and plans for restricting messaging apps clearly exposed Iran’s oppressive apparatuses cannot confront Iranian netizens. During the November protests, a week of internet blockage also showed the truth that the government has not been able to suppress citizens who use any means to express their objections and coordinate their efforts and anti-establishment activities.