Disinformation Politics against Iran

The word “distortion” means turning words around and changing their meanings from their original places. The opposite of “distortion” is “correction.” One of the most important methods the party of falsehood has always used against the party of truth has been the use of the tool and technique of “distortion.” Today, the development of the technology used by the media has caused the role of this “current of distortions” to become even bolder. In order to explain this phenomenon in relation to the Islamic Republic of Iran, this Op-Ed has described this method and its relation to the Islamic Republic of Iran here in Khamenei.ir.

Since the 1990s when the Internet was introduced, the world has been changing at a skyrocketing speed, but not necessarily in a qualitatively constructive direction. Expansion of media through digital revolution and age of information led to changes in the ways people understood the world. As Maddalena and Gili have argued, more extensive spread of lies and more people being deceived, deeper penetration into public opinion due to social media and greater speed of circulation of news, especially fake news, are three directions in which globalization and the digital revolution, have impacted the world[1], directing us toward a post-truth era.

Disinformation era encompasses a series of characteristics among the public and some others among the actors, being usually politicians or the media. The trends of this era  among the public in words of Kavanagh and Rich[2] are:

A) Interpretability of data and facts: people do not accept facts as absolute and believe that different interpretations of same set of facts and data are possible.

B) Blurring of line between opinion and fact; whereas people consider the opinions, either of their own or of the others, as fact and cannot distinguish between them.

C) Increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; where people can distinguish between fact and opinion, but they prefer their own experience and feelings to the facts. This is what experts consider a shift from the age of information to the age of experience.

D) Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. Official sources of news and information like government organizations and news agencies have lost their unchallenged authority and are not necessarily more respected than sources on social media.

These trends that make the public audience more vulnerable to media and disinformation campaigns, set the ground for political actors and media to exploit them to push for their own benefits and agenda instead of pursuing truth as a value. This era thus can be identified as a time when people are very likely to be ignorant of truth as a universal value to be pursued, and rather prefer things better matching their feelings and experiences. “Truth is not falsified, or contested, but of secondary importance,”[3] i.e. the criterion for adopting a particular opinion or embracing a particular claim is no longer its verifiability but rather its stickiness.[4] Therefore, post-truth paves the way for many politicians and media outlets – who are main newsmakers and content providers to the public – to misguide or deceive their audience, not allowing the public to remember truth as a value for human being; therefore, it can be defined as “the blurring of boundaries between lying and truth-telling and, likewise, fact and fiction.”[5] As Mair[6] argues, what characterizes our time is “qualitatively new dishonesty on the part of politicians”; in other words, facts are no longer twisted, reinterpreted or conveniently omitted—they are made up and presented ad hoc simply because they fit a particular story or a broader agenda.

Since “feelings, not facts are what matter[7]”, political communication is now about “blending entertainment values with political values”[8]; in that context, “using emotional cues helps to get audiences’ attention and to prolong engagement.[9]”. Harsin has rightfully rebranded post-truth to ‘emo-truth’, i.e. emotional truth as something that breaks through the repetition of well-polished promotionalism, i.e. something exceptional and attention-grabbing.[10] In a nutshell, if a practitioner aims to use current trends to achieve their goal, they need to introduce emotional contents, from unverifiable sources which seem or are claimed to be reliable.

But it is not merely about media consumption of audience or media marketing of content providers; as mentioned above, it is also taken advantage of by politicians and gives shape to post-truth politics through disinformation campaigns and dissemination of fake news. The term refers to those political activities and campaigns that seek to force people toward a particular decision favored by the actor. Given that public diplomacy of a country is similarly pursuing a particular behavior in a target community and, in Joseph Nye’s words, winning hearts and minds of people in other countries, disinformation campaigns seem to be the new framework for such policies. Simply put, if a practitioner wants to influence a nation, it should overrule their state and win them. Lewandowsky offers that such measures can be achieved through exposing the target community to conspiracy claims, because “even if the conspiratorial claims are dismissed, [it] makes people less likely to accept official information… and adversely affects trust in government services and institutions.[11]” In this way, as Lewandowsky concludes, for people who are misinformed through such trends and techniques, “chances are that societal decisions will be suboptimal,[12]” i.e. the practitioner has thus succeeded to shape the behavior of their target community toward a decision sought by the practitioner and not truly in favor of the public.

This, in fact, is what Ayatollah Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, did refer to in a recent speech as ‘Distortion’ of truth working hand in hand with sanctions, “portraying realities in the reverse order including the realities about our country… to damage the people’s morale and… giving the wrong address concerning the lifting of sanctions.[13]” The “movement of distorting the truth” is what a mainstream media campaign is doing vis-à-vis Iran in accordance with the disinformation campaign of the United States towards the Islamic Republic. There are numerous cases where mainstream media utilized distribution of fake news and disinformation to manipulate Iranian public opinion against their fellow state. In recent months, it can be observed mainly regarding Covid-19 crisis, nuclear program and Iran deal, and Iran’s long-term cooperation agreement with China.

One instance of disseminating conspiratorial information is US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s February 25 speech, just days after Coronavirus was diagnosed in Iran, claiming that “the United States is deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country.[14]” About a month later, he claimed that Iran “ignored repeated warnings from its own health officials, and denied its first death from the coronavirus for at least nine days.[15]” This is indeed a utilization of trends imposing one’s own opinion as a fact without providing any reasonings or verifications.

On February 28, only ten days into Covid-19 crisis for Iran, BBC quoted BBC Persian’s unidentified ‘health sources’ that “at least 210 patients have died in Iran, way above the official figure of 34.”[16] Similarly, on its March 1 report, Reuters refers to “a doctor in Tehran, who asked not to be named” and “a doctor in Qom, who also asked not to be named” saying that “illness had been circulating days before it was announced[17],” again without any evidence. One month later, on April 2, Reuters[18] again quoted ‘a senior official with direct knowledge of the matter’ and ‘one of the health ministry officials’ and ‘some Iranians, including former officials and medical professionals’ as well as ‘a nurse,’ ‘a health ministry official,’ and ‘a senior pulmonologist’ in Qom. Even if we believe that all these unidentifiable people really exist, Reuters provides no evidence and in fact uses their opinions as facts. ABC News reported on May 12, an interview by The Associated Press with a doctor “who, like all medical workers interviewed for this story, spoke only on the condition that they not be named for fear of persecution[19],” repeating the same claims that Iran was hiding the numbers and was pressuring medical staff, failing to provide a single document. Suggesting these people ‘fear persecution’ is a grab of emotion to incite the feelings of the audience.

Another example of the media touching the feeling of the public in Iran was BBC Persian’s reaction to Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Harirchi contracting the virus vs. his British counterpart and also Prime Minister. The Persian edition directly addressing people in Iran, depicted a gloomy picture of the situation in Iran and the incompetency of the government in dealing with the epidemic[20], yet as soon as the UK officials were tested positive and PM Boris Johnson nearly died of the Coronavirus, neither BBC Persian nor BBC World reported dark days in Britain.

A more recent example is media hype about Iran-China long-term cooperation memorandum which potentially relieves Iran from US sanctions and improves the economy of the country, proving failure of the Maximum Pressure Campaign of Trump Administration. Mainstream media rushed into reporting of articles and figures of the agreement which is not written yet and began discussing the terms of it. The Persian account of the US State Department referred to the planned agreement as a “second Turkmenchay” and said that Tehran is afraid to share the details of the pact because “no part of it is beneficial to the Iranian people.” The tweet was trying to take advantage of the notoriety of the historical treaty and invoke the feelings of Iranians, also casting doubt against the Iranian government.

The most recent case is again BBC Persian’s report[21] of Iran hiding coronavirus deaths providing, again, data from an unidentified source who – to make it emotional – fears his life and – to make it more emotional – feels responsibility to reveal state documents showing a list of victims of the virus from which – to make it even more emotional and to depict it as a reliable source – personal info such as ID number or phones – only verifiable fields on the document – are redacted.

There are lots of such examples of mainstream media or foreign officials applying disinformation campaigns and trends against Iran. They try to provide a gloomy image of Iran’s situation, especially about the economy and the possibility of a hopeful future for the country. While all evidence and analyses show that US maximum pressure strategy has failed to bring Iran to its knees, apparently taking Brian Hook down from his position as the point man on Iran, the path ahead is something that Tehran should choose and part of it will be done by people of Iran at the ballot boxes next year. It appears that more resistance will bring the wall of sanctions down and make the Islamic Republic resilient against outside pressure; yet ahead of US elections and with the clock ticking for removal of arms embargo against Iran on October, there are many efforts to convince Iranians that the path ahead is a dichotomy of war or negotiation, without any third option on the table.  Manipulating the public by introducing such dualities and preventing them from considering other possibilities is one sort of a disinformation campaign which tries to lead Iranians toward, as Lewandowsky quoted above has put it, ‘suboptimal societal decision,’ of giving up to the bullying of western powers and stop resilience and the pursuit of independence and self-reliance both culturally, politically and economically.

[1] Maddalena, Giovanny & Gili, Guido. 2020. The History and Theory of Post-Truth Communication. Palgrave Macmillan, Switzerland.

[2] Kavanagh, Jennifer & Rich Michael D. 2018. Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. RAND Corporation: California.

[3] The Economist. (2016b, September 10). Art of the Lie. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21706525-politicians-have-always-lied-does-it-matter-ifthey-leave-truth-behind-entirely-art.

[4] Kalpokas, Ignas. 2019. A Political Theory of Post-Truth. Palgrave Macmillan, Switzerland.

[5] Keyes, R. (2004). The Post-truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

[6] Mair, J. (2017). Post-truth Anthropology. Anthropology Today, 33(3), 3–4.

[7] The Economist. (2016b, September 10). Art of the Lie. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21706525-politicians-have-always-lied-does-it-matter-ifthey-leave-truth-behind-entirely-art.

[8] Marshall, P. D., & Henderson, N. (2016). Political Persona 2016: An Introduction. Persona Studies, 2(2), 1–18.

[9] Suiter, J. (2016). Post-truth Politics. Political Insight, 7(3), 25–27.

[10] Harsin, J. (2017). Trump l’OEil: Is Trump’s Post-Truth Communication Translatable? Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 21(5), 512–522.

[11] Lewandowsky, S., et al. Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and Coping with the “Post-Truth” Era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (2017).

[12] Ibid.

[13] https://english.khamenei.ir/news/7815/Currently-the-American-people-are-the-greatest-enemy-to-the

[14] https://www.state.gov/secretary-michael-r-pompeo-remarks-to-the-press-5/

[15] https://www.state.gov/khameneis-lies-about-the-wuhan-virus-put-lives-at-risk/

[16] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/world-51669434

[17] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-iran-mood-idUSKBN20O1X1?taid=5e5c1a3945b18d0001e7c02f&utm_campaign=trueAnthem:+Trending+Content&utm_medium=trueAnthem&utm_source=twitter

[18] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-iran-qom/elections-ties-with-china-shaped-irans-coronavirus-response-idUSKBN21K1NO?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=Social

[19] https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/doctors-nurses-died-iran-virus-concerns-70629802

[20] https://www.bbc.com/persian/blog-viewpoints-51819538 

[21] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-53598965