Iran is spreading lies on social media. But stopping them could be a cinch

Even though Iran has long been involved in disinformation, it hasn’t exactly managed to distinguish itself in the field. Iranian propaganda is generally a mess.

That history offers a useful filter for this week’s revelations from Facebook, Twitter and now Google about Iran’s disinformation campaigns on social media.

A familiar paradox presents itself: The same country that shuns the notion of free expression at home is happy to turn other countries’ free media to its own benefit.

Iranian officials have responded to the revelations by trying to shift the onus back to the United States, dismissing the whole story as an attempt by American hawks to undermine the Islamic Republic.

“Such claims are ridiculous and are part and parcel of U.S. public calls for regime change in Iran, and are an abuse of social media platforms,” Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, said on Wednesday. His response sidesteps an important aspect of the controversy: Iran officially bars its citizens from using social media while regime officials make wide use of digital platforms to get their own messages out.

Tech-giant executives and Iranian officials have periodically met during recent years to discuss the possibility of lifting Tehran’s official ban on social-media platforms but, so far, the regime’s attitude has merely highlighted one of the system’s inherent hypocrisies.

The Islamic Republic has often been described as “Orwellian.” The designation is apt, but Tehran’s dystopia is closer to the one in Animal Farm than the one in 1984: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.” That’s a great description of how Iran views its relationship with its public.

But now, tech companies have an opportunity to level the playing field. This week, they moved to shut down hundreds of fake Iranian accounts.

Google, in particular, zeroed in on fraudulent users associated with IRIB, Iran’s state broadcaster. “We identified and terminated a number of accounts linked to the IRIB organization that disguised their connection to this effort, including while sharing English-language political content in the U.S.,” wrote Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, in a Thursday blog post.

It’s hard to gauge how effective such Iranian campaigns have been, but it’s telling that some wings of the regime — such as IRIB — are actively manipulating information in such ways.

At a time when the effectiveness of Iranian state media at home is in doubt, and its international reach negligible, resorting to this sort of trickery might seem like a better, cheaper option — especially as the government confronts sanctions and considerable domestic pressure.

If the regime in Tehran won’t freely allow its citizens the use of platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, why should it be allowed to benefit from them publicly (through its privileged regime accounts), and through clandestine disinformation campaigns such as the ones uncovered this week? This week’s actions by the tech giants offer one response.

Here’s another thought: Why can’t Facebook and Twitter start offering account verification to every Iranian user who qualifies for it? If top Iranian officials such as president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, can have verified accounts — which they use to push their agendas just as President Trump does — why can’t Iranian public figures, journalists and other influencers have them, as well?

Iranians aren’t demanding better circumvention tools — they’ve figured that out with limited outside help. What’s needed are mechanisms for transparency and credibility. Verification could provide that.

You think those blue verified check marks are frivolous? Tell that to the thousands of Iranian content creators who, at great personal risk, express themselves on social media every day. To them, being verified adds a measure of credibility, showing that they’re honest members of a social-media community, and not merely bots or agents of sabotage.

This wouldn’t be a magic bullet, but it would be a sign from Facebook, Twitter and others that their most vulnerable users, in countries where they are under threat simply for using these digital tools, can make use of the platforms in the same way their countries’ leaders do.

This kind of transparency mechanism could have another advantage over time. Recently there’s been a surge in domestic Iranian protests — and a range of foreign powers are trying to co-opt these movements. Verification would offer these brave Iranians a measure of public credibility and identification — if they want it — that they currently lack.

This would also have the virtue of undercutting the notion that state officials are Iran’s only “verifiable” voices.

Even such a simple solution would go a long way in helping Iranians have their voices heard.

Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.

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