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Abu Dhabi, UAE
As protests against the government in Iran enter their third week, the Islamic Republic has imposed an almost complete blackout on independent information coming out of the country.
The battle to control the narrative is now raging online, where supporters and opponents of the government are turning to social media to tell their version of the truth and, in some cases, go beyond the truth.
Because access to Twitter is blocked in Iran, this fight is taking place mainly outside the country.
“It’s normal for people to take to social media when protests break out … it’s happened in Iran and the Arab world,” said Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar who specializes in digital disinformation. “But the scale here seems pretty big.”
Protests are nothing new in Iran, and neither are internet blackouts. What is changing, experts say, is the sophistication of those trying to get their message across.
The protests began after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police”, sparking anger among Iranians who took to the streets to demand more freedom.
A hashtag bearing his name has garnered 52 million tweets, said Jones, who has analyzed pro- and anti-regime activity on Twitter. Some of those tweets, he said, suggest that coordinated manipulation campaigns may be at play, possibly including bots.
Bots are social media accounts controlled by software, not real people, that are designed to promote certain topics.
He told CNN that an analysis of people tweeting hashtags related to the protests showed a “striking number of new accounts created” since the protests began.
Of the 108,000 accounts in a sample using #OpIran, another protest-related hashtag, it found that around 13,000 were created in September, while the average number of accounts created per month in the sample was only 500. Most of September’s accounts were. Created 10 days after Amini’s death, he said.
“It’s quite rare to see this new mobilization of online accounts that are increasingly engaging in tweeting activity,” he said, adding that while this points to manipulation, it’s not conclusive evidence of it.
Asked for comment on the matter, Twitter told CNN of its policy to “take strong and proactive actions against content infringement” where genuine evidence of uncoordinated activity is detected.
Creating new accounts is “a recurring hallmark of misinformation and disinformation operators… [who] participate in the conversation to push a narrative,” said Steph Shample, a non-resident researcher in the Middle East Institute’s Cyber Program. The content on such accounts is unreliable, she said.
Maziar Bahari, editor of IranWire, a pro-reform activist outlet, says there are many ways to check content on social media, “but in a chaotic and angry situation it’s impossible to expect to try to check every citizen, especially. these exaggerated reports have roots in reality.’
Bahari said there have been several instances of fake news being successfully portrayed as reality on both sides. “After every protest, the government displays firearms confiscated from archives or taken from common criminals and attributes them to their critics,” he told CNN. There are also cases of social media users claiming that reports of killings and sexual violence by security forces are exaggerated, he said.
The damage “comes even more when prominent public figures, such as politicians or educators, retweet false narratives from controlling countries and their politicians,” Shample said.
Any account on any social media platform that successfully posts pro-Iranian government material is suspect, he said. “It’s very, very dangerous to take things too early.”
So who is behind all the #MahsaAmini activity on Twitter?
With Twitter blocked in Iran, Jones suggests that the large Iranian diaspora is mobilizing to keep his story alive, but there may be other interests at play.
“We also know that there are many people involved in trying to see regime change in Iran, starting with the US and Israeli right-wing hawks, MeKra,” he said, referring to Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an Albanian. based Iranian dissident group. “The MeK has certainly been active in social media manipulation before [death of] Mahsa Amini”.
Shample suggests that the government itself may be behind some anti-regime tweets to monitor those who support the movement.
The narrative war between opposing parties on social media is not new. Twitter regularly removes accounts it says are linked to the Iranian government that engage in coordinated manipulation. Last year, Facebook removed hundreds of fake accounts linked to MeK linked to an Albanian troll farm. The group was removed from the US terror list in 2012.
Facebook describes troll farms as “physical locations where a collective of operators share computers and phones to jointly manage a pool of fake accounts as part of an influence operation.”
Neither the MeK, also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, nor Iran’s foreign ministry responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
The Iranian government has repeatedly blamed foreign conspiracies aimed at spreading fake news about the situation in Iran. But Bahari says the misinformation and foreign exploitation of the protests does not exclude a movement with genuine demands for change.
“Disinformation has existed as long as there have been movements,” he said. “But the advent of social media means that [it] it can spread faster…when movements are popular and rooted in people’s aspirations for change, misinformation is just a nuisance.”
OPEC+ has agreed to cut oil production by 2 million bpd, defying US pressure
OPEC+ agreed on Wednesday to cut output by 2 million barrels a day, defying a campaign by the US to pressure the cartel not to cut as sharply. The cut was the largest since the Covid-19 pandemic and was twice what analysts had expected.
- Background: The Biden administration launched a pressure campaign this week in a last-ditch effort to curb oil production by Arab allies. Officials lobbied their counterparts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to vote against the move. Some of the talking points in the drafts brought up the possibility of cutting production as a “hostile act”.
- Why does it matter?: Cuts in oil production would cause US gasoline prices to rise at a precarious time for the Biden administration, five weeks before the midterm elections. Arab oil producers largely rebuffed US requests to raise production earlier this year.
Saudi prince has immunity in Khashoggi murder case, lawyers say
Lawyers for Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is facing a US lawsuit over the 2018 death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, told a court on Monday that the crown prince’s appointment last week guaranteed him immunity from prosecution, Reuters reported. .
- Background: Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in an operation US intelligence believes was ordered by MBS. The crown prince denied ordering Khashoggi’s murder, but later admitted it happened “under my watch”. Khashoggi’s fiance Hatice Cengiz and a human rights group founded by Khashoggi filed the case.
- Why it matters: The court asked the US Department of Justice to express its opinion on whether MBS was immune, setting an October 3 deadline for a response. After the prince was appointed prime minister last week, the department said on Friday it was seeking a 45-day extension to prepare a court response “in light of these changed circumstances”.
An 85-year-old Iranian-American who lived in Tehran for six years has left Iran
Baquer Namazi, an 85-year-old Iranian-American jailed in Iran on espionage charges, arrived in Muscat on Wednesday after Tehran allowed him to undergo medical treatment, an Omani government said on Twitter.
- Background: Namazi, a former official with the UN children’s agency UNICEF, holds US and Iranian citizenship and was one of four Iranian-Americans arrested or banned from leaving Iran in recent years, including her son Siam. Namazi was convicted in 2016 of “collaborating with an enemy government” and jailed for 10 years. Iranian authorities released him on medical grounds in 2018 and closed his case in 2020, commuting his sentence to time served. However, he was effectively barred from leaving until Saturday.
- Why does it matter?: Iranian-Americans, whose US citizenship is not recognized by Tehran, are often pawns between the two nations, whether they want to revive a weakened 2015 deal that saw Iran curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran is also facing the biggest show of opposition to its clerical rulers since 2019.
Egypt’s own Michael Jackson is making waves on social media. But inadvertently this pop star calls himself ‘the poor man’s Wegz’, referring to an Egyptian rapper.
A young Egyptian from a humble family has shot to fame in the Arab world after accidentally reviving Michael Jackson’s legacy, 13 years after the pop star’s death. His quirky Cairene touch made the video viral across the region.
In a short TikTok clip, Cairo resident Haytham Ahmed was seen mimicking Michael Jackson’s rendition of “Smooth Criminal,” mirroring his dance moves with hand gestures and an upbeat singing tune. Ahmed was filmed on the roof of a building in the Sheraton neighborhood of Cairo.
Ahmed said in a TV interview that his friend recorded the video spontaneously early in the morning.
Ahmed’s lyrics are barely understandable to English or Arabic speakers. Even so, his passionate impersonation of Jackson was popular.
Hend Sabry, a famous Egyptian actor, imitated Ahmed’s performance on his Tiktok account, which garnered around 1.5 million views.