Iran ramps up information control tactics, misinformation

Parallel to Iran’s efforts to control information internally are efforts to spread misinformation abroad.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Iranians surf the internet at a cafe in Tehran, Iran. A government push for a ‘halal’ internet in the country means more control after 2011 protests. (AP)
Tight control. Iranians surf the internet at a cafe in Tehran, Iran. A government push for a ‘halal’ internet in the country means more control after 2011 protests. (AP)

TUNIS - The Iranian regime is pressing ahead with new information control tactics, further restricting the flow of information and leading misinformation campaigns abroad, recent reports indicated.

The efforts are part of a strategy Tehran has employed since its Islamic Revolution to censor viewpoints it considers a threat to its rule. The advent of the internet, which created pockets of free space where activists and dissidents can coordinate and express views, including during anti-regime protests in 2009 and over the past three years, has led Iran to tighten its strategy.

To regain control of the digital sphere, Iran is employing more sophisticated — and forceful — methods to control information online and weed out dissent, said speakers at RightsCon, a global meeting on human rights in the digital age. It convened this year in Tunis.

At the core of Iran’s effort is the government-run National Information Network (NIN), which prevents data requests from being routed outside the country and provides “secure and private intranet networks,” the Iranian Supreme Council of Cyberspace stated.

A leading internet policy expert in Iran who attended RightsCon said NIN is Iran’s way of trying to “nationalise” or at least “localise” the internet.

While NIN has tangibly improved Iran’s internet infrastructure, boosting speed and enhancing the delivery of e-government and digital services, its end is information control, analysts said. As it progresses, it will give the regime access to and control over data exchanged over the network and allow it to shape Iranians’ internet usage, they added.

The internet policy expert, who spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity, said NIN’s tactics threaten to shut down views misaligned with the government and erode the inherent neutrality of the internet.

Even when Iran acts against legitimate cybersecurity, sovereignty and privacy concerns, such as the 2010 Stuxnet cyber-attack that caused damage to its nuclear programme, its internet policy is defined solely by the regime. Legislation designed to protect Iranians’ sensitive data do not protect freedom of expression online, unlike the European measure after which it was modelled.

Another piece of legislation is the “Organisation of Social Media and Messengers Bill,” which aims to shape Iranians’ internet usage, experts said.

An analysis of the draft bill by the Centre for Human Rights in Iran stated the legislation would “enable the country’s security and intelligence establishment to easily and effectively censor online content and monitor user activity,” “make it extremely difficult for users in Iran to access non-state approved digital content,” “provide incentives for users to access state-approved online content” and “lay out sentencing guidelines for users or companies convicted of accessing banned online content.”

Iran’s internet penetration rates are rapidly increasing. A 2018 survey by the Statistical Centre of Iran said 64% of Iranians older than the age of 6 are internet users, up almost 10% from the year before.

Parallel to the regime’s efforts to control information internally are efforts to spread misinformation abroad. While the covert and irregular nature of this campaign makes it difficult to track, some state-sponsored propaganda operations have been uncovered.

In 2008, BBC Persian reported that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) spokesman claimed that 10,000 blogs were launched by Basij, the IRGC’s “volunteer” paramilitary force.

As recently as this past May, Agence France-Presse reported on an Iran-based social media campaign to sway public opinion by impersonating reporters, politicians and others. The plot was uncovered by internet security firm FireEye, which said there was “a network of English-language social media accounts misrepresenting who was behind them [and] was evidently orchestrated to promote Iranian political interests.”

After the report, Twitter removed 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran and Facebook removed 51 accounts, 36 pages and seven groups and another three accounts from Instagram.

Despite Iran’s efforts to spread misinformation, its operations have a limited effect on public opinion given the overall amount of information circulating online, said the internet policy expert at RightsCon.

“Iran is certainly trying to be an influential actor for misinformation but, at the moment, I do not think they have the capability,” said the expert.

“When you look at trending hashtags in the MENA region and around the world, you can see how Saudi-led, anti-Iran propaganda gets amplified. Iran-originated hashtags never become trends on Twitter because of its filtering.”