أخبار العالم

How one tweet highlights Iran’s paradoxical relationship with social media

The 10-Year Challenge was the year’s first big internet fad. You remember? When people posted pictures of themselves from 2009 and 2019 in order to… well, actually, that was it. Depending on who you talk to, it was either a benign trend for people to show off how resilient their faces were against the tides of time, or a conspiracy by Facebook to improve its facial recognition tech.  

Whatever it was, it came and went. But there was one late entry to the short-lived trend that was of particular interest, due to its connection with hypocritical internet policies and disinformation: this tweet by former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If we look past why Ahmadinejad picked a picture which shows him squinting — and the fact that he used two different fonts for 2009 and 2019 — it’s a pretty standard example of a politician trying to hop on online trends to impress the youths, right? Kind of, except that Ahmadinejad was the one who banned Twitter in Iran back in 2009 — and it’s still inaccessible to Iranians today.

In addition to being hypocritical, this encapsulates the Iranian government’s use of the internet, according to Emerson Brooking. He’s the co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media and a Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, an organization that focuses on tracking, identifying, and bringing attention to disinformation campaigns around the world.

“It’s so surreal to see a former president — who might have future political ambitions — participating in this light-hearted challenge, on a platform that he himself oversaw the ban of in the aftermath of the Green Revolution,” Brookins explains. “He jailed people for years for using this platform. Now he’s using it, even though the law hasn’t changed.”

Yup, you read that correctly. Ahmadinejad (which Emerson pronounced perfectly, while I butchered it every single time) banned the platform when protestors used it against him, and then he joined it in 2017 — before his aborted presidential bid — to woo voters who weren’t allowed to use the platform. Sounds confusing and contradictory? That’s because it is.

The forgotten front: Iranian influence operations

Brooking has studied Iran’s disinformation campaigns — which usually are overshadowed by coverage of other countries like Russia — and how the government conducts information warfare. To him, this tweet underpins the state’s seemingly paradoxical approach to social media.

During his talk at the DisinfoLab Conference in Brussels last month, Brooking laid out how the Iranian government views the internet as a threat to its rule, but at the same time recognizes its capabilities to influence citizens of other countries.

“Iran clearly sees platforms like Twitter as a threat after 2009, but this conceptualization kind of exists on a spectrum. Iran also understands that in order to assert its place in the world, and to realize its foreign policy objectives, it has to use these tools — which are also verboten if you’re a member of the Iranian public,” Brooking told TNW.

So what exactly are the possibilities Iran sees? Disinformation.

Information warfare can lead to real-world damage

A couple of years ago, Pakistan’s Defense Minister was duped by fake news, which is suspected to have been a part of an Iranian disinformation campaign. The story featured made-up quotes by the Israeli Defense Minister in which he supposedly threatened to “destroy” Pakistan. The Pakistani minister took to Twitter (again weird, remember it’s banned in Iran) to declare Pakistan was also a nuclear state, insinuating severe retaliation.

Luckily, it didn’t escalate any further, as the Israeli Ministry of Defense was quick to point out the original interview was complete fabrication, and the Pakistani minister backtracked.

Credit: Emerson Brooking