A Brief History of Iranian Fake News

How Disinformation Campaigns Shaped the Islamic Republic

Alarmed by Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, U.S. media, strategists, and intelligence agencies await the upcoming midterm elections in November with consternation, warning of the danger of renewed meddling from Moscow. Yet new reports suggest that the Kremlin may have company in its efforts to shape the U.S. domestic information landscape: Iran. 

In the past few days, Facebook and Twitter were among several platforms that announced the deletion of hundreds of suspicious social media accounts, which the companies said were linked to a systematic Iranian disinformation campaign abroad. According to FireEye, the cybersecurity firm that first raised the alarm, the groups associated with the campaign often presented themselves as independent news outlets but were in fact linked to Iranian state media. Their content was designed to push issues and narratives in line with Iranian foreign policy, promoting “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as support for specific U.S. policies favorable to Iran, such as the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.” 

The revelations echo recent comments by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who called Iranian meddling a “national security concern.” But they should not come as a surprise to Washington: although Iranian disinformation efforts abroad have been fairly limited and there is no evidence that the recently deleted accounts were specifically designed to affect the outcome of the November midterms, Tehran is no stranger to information warfare. Like few other authoritarian regimes, the Islamic Republic has long understood that information is hard political currency. 

In fact, the Islamic Republic’s disinformation tactics are as old as the regime itself. In the 1970s, Iranian revolutionaries fighting to topple the U.S.-backed monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—known as the Shah—lacked today’s online technology but worked hard to use all available channels to amplify the voice of their leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. An exiled dissident cleric, Khomeini asserted himself as captain of the revolution and became the new theocratic regime’s first supreme leader

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