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Fake news, biometrics and blackout - Iran's disinformation tools

PAP/EPA/Sedat Suna
PAP/EPA/Sedat Suna

Despite the scale of terror, most of the world does not know much about the situation in Iran, because its government tightly restricts access to information, by using propaganda tools and fake news, and by controlling access to the internet. The problem concerns not only Iran, but also the armed conflict on the European continent. This is because Tehran's actions may be a model for Moscow and the subject of the already existing exchange of know-how with Russia.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has seen for over three months now mass public protests sparked by the brutal beating and death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by Iran's so-called religious morality police for allegedly not wearing the customary Islamic female headcovering (hijab) in public1.

In October 2022, more than 1,000 people were arrested and sent to maximum security prisons in connection with the anti-government protests that have engulfed Iran, the biggest riots seen since the 1979 revolution. As part of the fight against the protesting society, the government uses all means to suppress the counter-revolution, including tools of information warfare, propaganda and limiting access to information.

 This is particularly relevant in the context of dramatic human rights violations, especially against women and children2, committed by the Iranian rulers and the religious hierarchy supportive of them. 

The tools used by Tehran also have a geopolitical dimension. Due to cordial relations between Iran and Russia, the experiences of both countries in the field of fake news campaigns and, more broadly, information access control, can be exchanged, serving to strengthen authoritarian power.


Blockade the Persian way

According to official Twitter data3, cybersecurity experts discovered hundreds of fictitious social media accounts in 2018, which, although run in English and targeted at communities in Western Europe and the US, were controlled from Tehran.

An analysis by FireEye cyber security company has found that the scope of campaigns aimed at undermining the images of the USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia and personally the former US President Donald Trump was not very impressive, which would indicate the incompetence of people managing troll farms4.

While foreign influence campaigns have never been particularly successful, the tools of information control created by the regime of Iran's ruler Ali Khamenei over the last few years have been absolutely effective against a society that seeks the democratisation of public life.

Over the last three months, the Iranian authorities have implemented with great success a system of controlling the information space to regain control over society. To this end, the institutions responsible for the information space used a number of tools in a coordinated manner, including cutting off some regions from sources of communication (the so-called "digital blackout"), using biometric technologies to identify individuals, using social media platforms to spread pro-government propaganda, tracking people who post anti-government content online in order to hack their accounts or arrest them5.

Internet access blocking is nothing new in Iran. Authorities have been using this technique since around 2012. For example, in 2019, they completely blocked access to the internet, preventing any data flow to and from Iran for the duration of the anti-government protests.


"Internet blocking has become the primary strategy of the Iranian government to fight the riots," said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis for Kentik, which tracks events in Iran. "The Iranians used internet services to share with each other and the world videos of the protests and the government's attempt to suppress them, therefore they became the target of government censorship," Madory added.

The Iranian authorities began blocking access to the Internet from the start of the protests on September 19, 2022. According to Felicia Anthonio, a campaigner against Internet shutdown, the software used by the government is so advanced that it allows to filter the content of messages with key passwords, based on which access to the network is blocked. "If you send a message containing Mahsa Amini's name, the messages are not delivered to the recipients," Anthonio said.


Selective internet

Blocking the internet allows the authorities to hide atrocities committed by them against Iranian society. Since the protests began, the government has resorted to several digital blackouts, both on a national and local scale, excluding some regions, such as Kurdistan, from the digital circuit. At the same time, Iranian citizens still find ways to circumvent government blockades, for instance by using some local unrestricted internet providers6.

Khamenei’s government does not shut down the internet completely, because access to this tool is an effective way to keep under surveillance the protesters, who use the internet spontaneously and cannot remain anonymous on the internet.

According to experts from TechMonitor, Iran uses SIAM spyware to track, decrypt messages and block internet access on mobile devices. This software is used by the Communications Regulatory Authority of Iran to monitor people taking part in protests and enables their precise location, creating a network of protest participants who were in contact with each other.

According to Gary Miller from The Citizen Lab, a specialist IT department at the University of Toronto, "many users have problems using their phones during protests, however the ability to control the bandwidth of the link from 5G to 2G, whose connections are generally not encrypted, is new.7"


Hotline with the Kremlin

The regime in Tehran is one of the most brutal in the world. It is estimated that over 15,000 people were arrested in the first two months of the protests, with more than 1,000 convicted so far. This is over three times more than in the whole of 20218. Among those arrested are women, children and citizens of other countries.

So far, more than 400 of the identified people have been killed in protests or at the hands of the police, and many are in serious condition in prisons, where they are subjected to torture and inhumane treatment9. Information control tools, including propaganda and fake news tools, are part of the arsenal for bolstering power in Tehran. Due to its effectiveness in terms of enhancing social control, Iran is likely to invest more in new technologies in this area.

It can be expected that over time, Persian society will be easier to manage, including mobilisation or demobilisation, depending on the ongoing needs of the regime. The effectiveness of the campaigns currently conducted in Iran should be assessed as very high. Unfortunately, taking into account the scale of technological exchange and political rapprochement between Russia and Iran, it should also be assumed that cooperation and copying of patterns may occur in this matter as well.

Moreover, the mutual exchange of know-how between the two regimes will probably lead to the mutual development of tools and techniques for manipulation, disinformation and surveillance. Therefore, when anticipating the actions of the Moscow authorities in the field of information warfare, one cannot ignore the initiatives undertaken by the authorities in Tehran primarily against its own society.