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Abu Dhabi, UAE
As anti-government protests in Iran enter their third week, the Islamic Republic has almost completely shut down independent information from the country.
There is now a fierce battle to control the narrative online, with supporters and opponents of the government using social media to tell their own version of the truth and, in some cases, deviate from the truth.
Since access to Twitter is blocked in Iran, this battle is primarily fought outside the country.
Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar who specializes in digital disinformation, said: “When protests start, it’s normal for people to rush to social media … This has happened in Iran and the Arab world.” “But the scale here seems pretty significant.”
Protests are not new to Iran, nor are internet blackouts. What’s changing, experts say, is the sophistication of those trying to get their messages across.
The protests began after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after being detained by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police” and sparked outrage among Iranians who took to the streets to demand more freedom.
Jones, who analyzes pro-regime and anti-regime activity on Twitter, said the hashtag with his name has garnered 52 million tweets. He said some of those tweets suggested there could be coordinated manipulation campaigns, possibly including bots.
Bots are social media accounts controlled by software, not real people, designed to promote certain topics.
He told CNN that an analysis of people tweeting hashtags related to the protests showed that “a lot of new accounts have been created” since the protests began.
Using #OpIran, another hashtag associated with the protests, of the 108,000 accounts in the sample, he found that about 13,000 were created in September, while the average number of accounts created per month in the sample was just 500. Most of the September accounts were created about 10 days after Amy’s death, he said.
“It’s extremely rare to see a new online mobilization of accounts that engage in subsequent and sustained tweeting activity,” he said, adding that while this may indicate manipulation, it is not definitive proof of it.
Asked for comment on the matter, Twitter referred to CNN’s policy of “taking strong and proactive action against infringers” when evidence of unspecified activity linked to CNN is discovered.
The creation of new accounts is a “recurring symptom of misinformation and misinformation… [who] participate in the conversation to advance the narrative,” said Steph Shample, a non-resident scholar in the Middle East Institute’s Cyber Program. The content of such accounts is not reliable, he said.
There are many ways to check content on social media, says Maziar Bahari, editor of the pro-reform IranWire, “but in a chaotic, angry situation, you can’t expect every member of the public to try to fact-check, especially. if those exaggerated reports have their roots in reality.”
Bahari said there have been several cases of fake news being successfully passed off as reality by both sides. “After every protest, the government displays firearms confiscated from archives or seized from common criminals and attributes them to the critics,” he said. According to him, there are also cases of social media users being killed by security forces and exaggerating reports of sexual violence.
The damage is “greater when important public figures, such as politicians or educators, retweet false stories about surveillance countries and their politicians,” Shample said.
He said any account successfully posting pro-Iranian government material on any social media platform while most of the country is cut off from these services is suspicious. “It’s very, very dangerous to take things at face value anymore.”
So who is behind all the Twitter activity around #MahsaAmini?
Because Twitter is blocked in Iran, Jones suggests that the large Iranian diaspora may be mobilizing to keep his story alive, but other interests may be at play.
“We also know that there are a number of people who are trying to see regime change in Iran, from right-wing hawks in the US and Israel to the MeK,” he said, referring to Albania’s Mujahideen-e-Khalq. Iranian dissident group. “MeK was definitely active in social media manipulation before this [death of] Mahsa Amini”.
Shample suggests that the government itself may be behind some of the anti-regime tweets to track down those who support the movement.
The war of narratives between opposing sides on social media is not new. Twitter routinely removes accounts associated with the Iranian government that engage in coordinated manipulation. Last year, Facebook removed hundreds of fake accounts linked to a troll farm in Albania it said were linked to MeK. The group was removed from the US terrorist list in 2012.
Facebook describes troll farms as “a physical location 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 Iranian People’s Mujahideen Organization nor the Iranian Foreign Ministry responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
The Iranian government has repeatedly blamed foreign conspiracies aimed at spreading false news about the situation in Iran. But Bahari says disinformation and external exploitation of protests does not discredit a movement with genuine demands for change.
“Disinformation has existed as long as movements have existed,” he said. “But the emergence of social media shows this [it] can spread more quickly… when movements become popular and take root in people’s desire for change, disinformation is simply a nuisance.”
OPEC+ succumbed to the pressure of the United States and agreed to reduce oil production by 2 million barrels per day
On Wednesday, OPEC+ agreed to cut output by 2 million barrels per day, defying a US campaign to pressure the cartel not to make such drastic cuts. The cut was the largest since the Covid-19 pandemic and more than twice what analysts had expected.
- Background: The Biden administration launched a pressure campaign this week to dissuade Arab allies from cutting oil production. Officials lobbied their counterparts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to vote against such a move. Some discussion points of the project described the prospect of production cuts as “hostile action”.
- Why is it important?: Oil production cuts will push up US gasoline prices at an uncertain time for the Biden administration, with the midterm elections just five weeks away. Earlier this year, US demands to increase production were largely rejected by Arab oil producers.
Saudi prince has immunity in Khashoggi murder case, lawyers say
Lawyers for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is on trial in the United States for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, said in court on Monday that the crown prince’s appointment as prime minister last week granted him immunity from prosecution. .
- Background: In an operation that US intelligence believes was ordered by MBS, Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The crown prince denied ordering Khashoggi’s murder, but later admitted it happened “under my supervision.” Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz and Khashoggi’s human rights group filed the lawsuit.
- Why it matters: The court asked the US Department of Justice to issue an opinion on whether MBS has immunity, and set a response date of October 3. After the prince was appointed prime minister last week, the department said on Friday it had sought a 45-day extension to prepare a response to the lawsuit “in light of these changed circumstances”.
An 85-year-old Iranian-American who has been detained in Tehran for 6 years is leaving Iran
Baquer Namazi, an 85-year-old Iranian-American arrested on espionage charges in Iran, was allowed to leave for treatment in Tehran, the Omani government’s Twitter account said on Wednesday.
- Background: Namazi, a former official at the UN children’s agency UNICEF, holds US and Iranian citizenship and was one of four Iranian-Americans detained or barred from leaving Iran in recent years, including her son Siamak. In 2016, Namazi was found guilty of “cooperation with the enemy government” and imprisoned for 10 years. Iranian officials released him on medical grounds in 2018 and closed his case in 2020, replacing his sentence with time served. But they effectively barred him from leaving until Saturday.
- Why is it important?: Iranian-Americans, whose US citizenship is not recognized by Tehran, are often pawns between the two nations, now at odds over whether to restore an outdated 2015 pact under which Iran curbed its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran is also grappling with the largest demonstration of opposition to its religious authorities since 2019.
Egypt’s very own Michael Jackson is making waves on social media. But this coincidental pop star calls himself “Poor Man’s Wegz” in reference to an Egyptian rapper.
A young Egyptian from a humble family has shot to fame in the Arab world after unexpectedly reviving Michael Jackson’s legacy 13 years after the pop star’s death. His unusual Cairene touch made the video go viral in the region.
In a short TikTok clip, Cairo resident Haytham Ahmed was seen imitating Michael Jackson’s performance in the movie “Smooth Criminal”, mirroring his dance moves with hand gestures and a passionate singing melody. Ahmed was photographed on the roof of a building in the Sheraton district of Cairo.
Ahmed said in his television interview that the video was recorded spontaneously by his friend early in the morning.
Ahmad’s words are difficult to understand for English or Arabic speakers. Nevertheless, his passionate impersonation of Jackson became famous.
The well-known Egyptian actress Hend Sabri imitated Ahmed’s performance on her Tiktok account, which garnered 1.5 million views.