Social media influence and disinformation out of the Islamic Republic of Iran is nothing new. Over the past decade, Iran has developed—and maintained—a significant information operations capability. After the Green Revolution exploded on Twitter in 2009, the regime rapidly expanded its social media monitoring and influence capabilities. Since then, Facebook and Twitter have repeatedlysuspended accounts and pages attributed to Iran, and the recent killing of Iranian general Qassim Suleimani offered a spate of examples in how Iran uses information warfare to discredit, confuse and sow chaos. We here at FPRI believe we experienced some of Iran’s disinformation campaigns in the last month.
Iran’s overt and covert influence operations
Iranian disinformation exhibits many parallels to Russian disinformation. The regime employs a range of overt state-sponsored news services that broadcast in foreign languages, hacks to defame its adversaries and deploys fake social media personas designed to look and talk like the audiences they seek to infiltrate and influence. But Iran’s influence differs from the Kremlin’s in a few ways:
Fewer resources – PressTV, Iran’s English-language state-sponsored news site publishes less content than its Kremlin counterparts and often duplicates and disseminates content directly from Russian sources and U.S. news services. This suggests they don’t have sufficient internal capacity to generate sustained propaganda for the audiences they hope to engage.
Less reach – Iran’s state-sponsored news and social media has far less reach into U.S. audiences than that of the Kremlin. This makes it harder for Iran to drive influence in America or to message Americans with respect to election 2020.
Far more aggressive against opponents – While Russia’s state-sponsored outlets make use of snark and somewhat nuanced messaging tactics to slight opponents, PressTV’s approach is more direct. Iranian media barrages opponents with negative press and makes little effort to veil their disdain for individuals they seek to discredit.
More foreign policy focused than election focused – Russian state-sponsored coverage focuses almost equally on the foreign policy concerns of the Kremlin as well as U.S. domestic politics. Iran publishes on both topics, but with less distinction between international and domestic U.S. coverage. Even within its U.S. domestic political coverage, Iran often develops content within the context of specified foreign policy objectives rather than nudging the U.S. presidential election.
Employment of social issues to divide Americans – Similar to Kremlin active measures, Iranian state-sponsored content exploits social, economic, racial and religious divides inside America. Whereas the Kremlin may seek to use social divides to infiltrate audiences surreptitiously by pushing both sides of an issue, Iranian social issue messaging more often stands consistently for or against one side of an issue.
Iranian discussions of the 2020 presidential candidates
To understand where, why, how and for whom Iran might interfere in the 2020 presidential election, FPRI’s Foreign Influence Election (FIE 2020) Project has examined the following question:
“What does Iranian state media say about the presidential candidates?”
The research team analyzed 2,137 PressTV articles published from January 1, 2019 to January 20, 2020. Those 2,137 stories hosted 2,917 mentions of candidates who’ve participated in the 2020 electoral process. The overwhelming majority (72%) of those mentions referenced President Trump. The remaining discussed the Democratic field of candidates, both those still in the race and not. In Figure 9 (below), we show candidates that received 50 mentions or more in PressTV articles and examine the ways in which they were discussed.
Below are some of the observations gleaned from data on Iranian articles:
Iran clearly does not like President Trump
President Trump received more than double the coverage from PressTV than the entire Democratic field combined (2,098 mentions to 814 mentions).
From PressTV, Trump received more negative mentions (and the highest proportion of negative mentions)—55%—than any other candidate.
The alleged Iranian attempts to hack the Trump organization, as noted by Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center, should come as no surprise based on their highly antagonistic, overt propaganda.
Chief Iranian criticisms of Trump generally align with the following narratives in PressTV coverage:
Divisiveness between Trump and U.S. Democrats – Democrats’criticisms of Trump are frequent focal points, as are stories highlighting the rising tensions between the two political parties.
Impeachment proceedings – Though much of Iran’s impeachment coverage is critical of both sides of the aisle, PressTV stories periodically allege that Trump is corrupt—his reputation “already tarnished”—and thus accusations of corruption with regard to the impeachment inquiry are often treated as fact.
Trump’s popularity ratings at home – While Iran readily criticizes Trump’s own popularity through unfavorablepolls and approval ratings, his domestic policies’ popularity is also scrutinized, particularly his immigration policy.
Trump’s relationship with and policy on Israel – Administration policy stances that favor Israel, such as the annexation of land in Palestine, accusations of collusion between the U.S. and Israel against Iran and U.S. role in facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are frequent talking points in Iranian negative coverage for Trump.
Allegations of racism – Stories often include criticisms regarding race issues.
Former Vice President Joe Biden receives mixed coverage from Iran
Of the 345 times Biden surfaced in PressTV content, roughly 12% of the time (43 mentions) coverage was negative. Biden receives more negative mentions than anyone else in the Democratic field.
Positive mentions of Biden and many of the neutral mentions focused on Biden vis-a-vis President Trump. These references generally side with Biden over Trump in a head-to-head discussion.
Senator Bernie Sanders received fairly neutral coverage from Iran
Coverage of Sanders frequently features his positions as a progressive, populist candidate, as well as criticisms of Sanders and his supporters as extreme.
Sanders’ opposition to the Iraq War is also highlighted, particularly so after Suleimani’s death.
Populist candidates received slightly less negative coverage than establishment Democratic candidates
Iran doesn’t aggressively favor any Democratic candidate for election 2020, but it consistently seeks to offer slightly more support for populist candidates such as Sanders and Warren over establishment candidates like Biden.
Iranian coverage frequently criticizes U.S. democracy and, like Kremlin coverage, seeks to denigrate American democracy as corrupt or inauthentic.
Iranian coverage of presidential candidates is a touch more positive and neutral compared to Russia
With the exception of President Trump, Iranian coverage of the major Democratic candidates floats at roughly 80% neutral regardless of the candidate. Whereas Kremlin neutral coverage hovers about 10% lower for the Democratic field, at about 70%. This difference reflects how Russia shows more interest in the 2020 presidential election than does Iran, which focuses predominantly on broader foreign policy issues and denigrating U.S. democracy as a whole.
Iranian coverage seeks to exploit specific social issues to divide U.S. population