TIRANA, ALBANIA – Iran is once again being subject to double standards as part of an ongoing effort to deprive it of access to media platforms where it can influence audiences overseas – in this case, on Twitter.
The effort has seen hundreds of Iranian accounts allegedly tied to Iranian pro-government “propaganda” efforts subject to a massive cull across platforms owned by Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc., and Google parent company Alphabet Inc.
Those purged from the platforms include profiles, channels, and accounts belonging to Iranian nationals who have been accused of involvement in alleged “coordinated manipulation” of information related to Middle Eastern events and ”divisive social commentary.”
On YouTube, this has included accounts belonging to media entities owned by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the state media corporation that operates such channels as the English-language PressTV and Spanish-language HispanTV.
Watch | Al Jazeera on Albania’s Iranian Regime Change Bot Factory
Yet while “actual” Iranians face bans from social media, countless bots and anti-government accounts belonging to U.S.-backed opposition groups posturing as the “Iranian people resistance” have been permitted to run rampant across the web.
Last month, nearly 800 accounts based in Iran were suspended by Twitter for allegedly violating the network’s policies, per an investigation alongside “industry peers” that allowed the social media giants a better “understanding of these [Iranian] networks.” Twitter hasn’t been forthcoming about the methods it used to investigate the networks tied to such alleged “Iranian interference,” but users including patriotic university student SeyedMousavi7 and Press TV journalist Waqar Rizvi were among those suspended.
SeyedMousavi7 was banned from Twitter after a major censorship campaign claiming he is part of a “propaganda ring.” He’s actually a student from #Iran and came to discuss politics just like everyone else. When it comes to voicing opinions, he says the platform is rigged. pic.twitter.com/StSI8caMp7
— iranmilitaryvlog 🇮🇷 (@irmilitaryvlog) August 23, 2018
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Zarif directly addressed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in a tweet aiming to highlight the contradiction:
Hello @Jack. Twitter has shuttered accounts of real Iranians, incl TV presenters & students, for supposedly being part of an ‘influence op’. How about looking at actual bots in Tirana used to prop up ‘regime change’ propaganda spewed out of DC? #YouAreBots”
Another tweet by Iranian legislator Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi addressed to the Twitter chief said:
You suspended my official account as MP of Iran for my violation of not determined twitter rules, but why you have not blocked bots of MEK in Tirana, a group that killed 17000 Iranian people, used to prop up ‘regime change’ propaganda? #YouAreBots”
The tweet followed a report by Al Jazeera English which detailed how monitors and researchers were able to pinpoint a sharp uptick in a trend of actual social media manipulation.
The Wizard Behind the “Resistance” Curtain – Maryam Rajavi and the MEK Cult
The report connected the growing phenomenon to the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) or People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), a cultish group of Iranian exiles that was listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. until 2012 and have been based in a camp outside the Albanian capital, Tirana, since the U.S. began openly backing it in 2013.
The group has long enjoyed the backing of the Iranian government’s enemies, ranging from toppled dictator Saddam Hussein to Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Hiding behind various front groups like the France-based “parliament-in-exile,” The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the MEK has sought to depict itself as a representative, democratic coalition that speaks for all of Iran’s religious, ethnic, and political groups proportionately” and is committed to a secular, pro-market, and free Iran.
The group has paid a number of top Trump administration officials to speak at its functions and echo its calls to enact a “regime change” in Tehran, including former New York City Mayor and top White House lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, among a long list of U.S. lawmakers and officials.
Yet the group, which have also been described as “skilled manipulators of public opinion,” are said by ex-members to tolerate little internal dissent and are seen by many as little more than a well-funded, mafia-style cult commanded by self-styled “Iranian President-in-Exile” Maryam Rajavi and backed by her friends across Western and Gulf capitals.
#FreeIran is our goal for our homeland #Iran! 1500 Iranian American delegates and leaders from 40 states will be in NY on 09/22. #FreeIran is only possible by the help of organized resistance led @Maryam_Rajavi. #FreeIran2018 @SecPompeo @nikkihaley @USAdarFarsi @fox5ny @VOAIran pic.twitter.com/iBCxFyTZ0x
— OIAC (@OrgIAC) September 18, 2018
Some who escaped the MEK and remain stranded in Tirana spoke to Al Jazeera and described the manner in which the cult orchestrated what appeared to be a trending wave of support for the group and its anti-regime message toward the end of last year, when Iranians took to the streets to protest adverse economic conditions largely caused by a mixture of domestic legislation and intense pressure by Washington.
Much of this trend was clearly fueled by bots – accounts that are often fraudulent and behave in an automated fashion, amplifying messages through swarm-like behavior such as retweeting, liking, and republishing videos and articles posted alongside hashtags such as #FreeIran and #IranRegimeChange.
In many cases these trends – which sought to focus, variously, on the plight of Iran’s national or religious minority groups ranging from Kurds to Christians, women’s rights groups, and dissidents –grew as a direct result of work by MEK members toiling away in an Albanian troll farm to boost their group’s online propaganda.
Former MEK militant Hassan Heyrani told the outlet:
Overall I would say that several thousand accounts are managed by about 1,000-1,500 MEK members … It was all very well organized and there were clear instructions about what needed to be done.”
Another former “keyboard warrior,” Hassan Shahbaz, added:
Our orders would tell us the hashtags to use in our tweets in order to make them more active … It was our job to provide coverage of these protests by seeking out, tweeting and re-tweeting videos while adding our own comments.”
Working with our industry peers today, we have suspended 284 accounts from Twitter for engaging in coordinated manipulation. Based on our existing analysis, it appears many of these accounts originated from Iran.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 22, 2018
Useful Tools in the Age of Trump
Journalist, writer and scholar Azadeh Moaveni told Al Jazeera that the 2016 election of former real estate mogul Donald Trump, who surrounded himself during his campaign with a range of zealous anti-Iran and pro-Israel hawks, was a turning point in such anti-IRI media operations.
“Once it became clear that there would be heightened hostility with Iran, there was a profusion of new accounts, anonymous accounts who were single-mindedly and purposefully going after people who wrote about, talked about Iran with nuance,” she noted.
Whether the report, or Iran’s demands, will have any impact on the continued backing of MEK by Iran’s opponents remains yet to be seen. In the last year alone, a bevy of U.S. figures including late Senator John McCain, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, and various senators have visited the Rajavi cult’s compound in Albania as U.S. rhetoric against Iran’s “regime” has escalated and the U.S. has unilaterally withdrawn from the six-party Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear accord.
In the meantime, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook have squirmed as the same U.S. lawmakers have sought to crack down on alleged Russian and Iranian “interference” online.
Without a doubt, the troll farms of the MEK will remain an important weapon in the arsenal of those seeking to manufacture the illusion of widespread anti-government fervor in an Iran under the gun of economic sanctions, media terrorism, and the low-intensity warfare of sustained “regime change” efforts.
Top Photo | Iranians surf the Internet at a cafe in Tehran, Iran, Sept, 17, 2013. Ebrahim Noroozi | AP
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.