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ANALYSIS: Unveiling Iranian pro-government trolls and cyber-warriors

Unlike Russian trolls, Iranian trolls have a limited range of techniques. (File photo: Reuters)

Lately, many media outlets write about “Kremlin Troll factory”. But, we should remember that these methods are used not only by the Russian authorities.

Many different countries with regimes of varying degrees of oppressiveness use internet-trolls and many other methods related to internet-trolling, manipulation of public opinion and spreading disinformation. One of those countries, which use the advantage of internet-trolls, is Iran.

It is noteworthy that the Iranian army of trolls differs from the Russian by its specificity, working methods and its scope of activity. In scope, funding and effectiveness Iranians are far behind their Russian counterparts. But, they don’t stand still and we can see the increase in the activity of Iranian pro-government trolls from year to year.

In this regard, it would be useful to consider the issue of internet-freedom in the country, I guess. According to Freedom House Report 2016, the number of Iranians who have access to the internet is 44 percent of the country’s population. Of course, this number has changed a little during the year. Anyway, it is a large number of people, tens of millions!

Such social networks as Facebook & Twitter, Youtube video-service, Viber messenger and many other services and websites are blocked in Iran. In spite of the fact that Facebook and Twitter are blocked in the country, the country’s leaders feel free to enjoy these services, using it as a tool for propaganda of their regime. Other Iranians need to use VPN to access blocked websites and services.

It is noteworthy that using VPN in Iran does not spell out any penalty (for example, Russia forbids the use of VPN, since 1 January 2018), however, certain people in Iran were arrested due to promotion, sale and training other people in the use of VPN services.

Telegram which has a large audience has been blocked after the protests began in Iran in the last few days of December. Before that, The Supreme Council on Cyberspace of Iran insisted that Telegram should provide the storage of Iranian users’ data in Iran.

Control for surveillance

Clearly, this was required to obtain total control for surveillance of Iranians in Telegram. Otherwise, the Council threatened to block the messenger. I wish to note that it is not that simple to use Telegram in Iran, I will touch upon the issue of using Telegram in Iran and associated risks, in the article below.

Iranian trolls may be divided into several categories. Many of these trolls use VPN to bypass Facebook & Twitter blocks and then extol their country’s authorities, its regime and, as they think, protect their Motherland’s interests in these social networks. Of course, they also attack critics of the regime and Iran as a whole.

A Western reader may consider this illogical, but from the point of view of Iranian “Internet-patriots” this is perfectly normal. These people don’t get any financial benefits for their “activity”, you can hardly find people with a good knowledge of English or any other European language among them. They are focusing on a quantity, not on a quality. If internet-trolls had a caste system, these trolls would constitute the lowest caste.

A higher caste is government-backed trolls who know English at intermediate level. They are more likely to receive instructions from the Government, than write something by themselves. Trolls, who are usually young people, get certain remuneration for their job.

Unlike Russian trolls, Iranian trolls have a limited range of techniques. For example, in the case of Iran, we cannot talk about mass creation of websites, pages and communities on Facebook, to distribute fake news and there is no mass production of fake content and uploading it on Youtube. But, this doesn’t mean that Iranians don’t use these methods at all.

In some cases, Iranian government-backed trolls cooperate with Iranian government hackers. For example, according to the report of iSight Partners 2014 Iranian hackers created a fake website – newsonair.org in 2011.

This website was used, mainly, as a cover for espionage. More than 2000 US and Israel citizens, mainly military, journalists, experts working in Washington, pro-Israeli lobbyists and people working in the field of nuclear technology were the target. The website doesn’t function at the moment.

An Iranian surfs the internet at a cafe in central Tehran on January 24, 2011. (AFP)

Fake websites

Speaking of Iranian fake websites, we need to divide them into two categories: The ones that are being created for espionage and theft of information, and the ones that are being created for the spread of fake news. These websites function, generally, not in Farsi, but in the languages of neighboring countries (Arab, Turkish, Azerbaijani etc.) and in English.

For example, one of such websites – tashaio.com functions in Azerbaijani language and, according to its registration data, is located in Ardebil (Southern Azerbaijan). The website shares news in Azerbaijani language, but reflecting the Iranian point of view.

The style of writing on this website is distinct from the language used by the local press in Azerbaijan Republic. Clearly, this is because the editors of the website are Iranians. Iranian low-level trolls, responsible for the Azerbaijani direction, often cite and refer to this site in disputes with Azerbaijani users, thereby contributing to the spread of links to this site in the Azerbaijani segment of Facebook.

The trolls with Western education may be considered the highest caste of Iranian trolls. American Universities’ alumni are fluent in English and constitute the elite of Iranian Government-backed trolls. They are small in number, but are far beyond their Russian counterparts in terms of quality. Almost 80 percent of these trolls are English-speaking.

They are used for “pinpoint attacks” on particular persons, foreign or Iranian dissidents and activists outside Iran. Comments they post are usually voluminous, distinguished by correct punctuation, competent questions, which attests to proficiency in English and in a subject matter.

Sometimes, an Iranian troll from the highest caste is on the payroll in a prestigious State institution, and acts as an expert in the Western mass media. At the same moment, media outlets, which publish these trolls, do not even know that their “Iranian expert” moonlights as a “pro-government troll” in his country.

There are also trolls among Iranian students studying abroad and secular in appearance Iranians, who have been residing in the West for a long time. The majority of these trolls “work for free”. That is why they are not the subject of my study.

Creation of fake “persons” is a separate topic. It is widespread in Iran. These fake accounts are, usually, created in social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin. Fake accounts are mainly used for espionage and trolling.

Active ‘fake persons’

All sleeping and active “fake persons” in various social networks have been activated, in connection with the recent events in Iran. Their main objectives are attacks on critics of the regime, distribution of fakes, disinformation and attempts to mislead active users of social networks, including experts and journalists who share information about the developments in Iran. These pro-government trolls are being actively used to intimidate Iranians protesting against the regime.

During the discussions with Iranian activists (well before the current events in Iran and before the block of Telegram) they told me many interesting details about tactics and the working methods of Iranian pro-government trolls.

The activists also said they are apprehensive about using Telegram for coordination of activities and correspondence with like minds. In 2016 in Iran, there were cases when police imprisoned groups of activists, who used Telegram for communication. It means that Iranian Government hackers could gain access to Telegram and after that, it is not safe for activists, HRDs and journalists to use this service to communicate and coordinate.

International cyber-security experts, for example Senior Technologist at Amnesty International Claudio Guarnieri confirmed the hack of Telegram by Iranian Government hackers in 2016.

Iranian activists in a conversation with me mentioned a few times that since the beginning of 2017 the Iranian Government’s need for Arabic-speaking trolls has increased dramatically. I think Iran needs them to use in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon, as well as in the Syrian issue and mainly against Saudi Arabia, and also to strengthen Iran’s authority among internet-audience of these countries.

The number of Iranian pro-Government trolls is an important issue. Putting aside voluntary trolls working for free, we may narrow it down. Iranian activists said there may be about 4-5 thousand government-affiliated trolls. In their opinion, this number can include trolls from various categories, including those who work in State institutions.

However, according to the report of the researchers of Oxford University “Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory or Organized Social Media Manipulation” for 2012, the researchers estimate the number of trolls at 20000 individuals.

To be honest, on the basis of confidential and public information that I have, and comparing other figures given in this report (including other countries) I have reason to call that number into question, if they wrote about paid trolls. But, if they wrote about both, it may be a matter of hundreds of thousands and it is difficult to draw a line between trolls and those who wrote comments somewhere once or twice and published a couple of patriotic posts.

Current mass protests that swept Iran, have forced the Authorities to restrict the access to Internet for the citizens. But, many Iranians still use VPN service to access social networks and messengers. This enables them to receive information, share it and files they have, express their thoughts. And, the Government-backed trolls, who have no problems with the speed and access to Internet, already await them here.

In addition, numerous foreigners and Iranians living abroad write and share information regarding the events in Iran, in social networks. Our analysis report shows that the trolls of the regime can’t keep up and in most cases they cannot reply to all posts. This shows the vulnerabilities of the State Trolling machine in Iran.

I suppose if the regime survives, they will conclude and review the approach to these issues. The result can be the increase of Iranian pro-government trolls’ activity, particularly against their citizens, and, of course, against the number of Arab countries and USA.
___________________________
Ali Hajizade is a political analyst and founder editor in chief of thegreatmiddleeast.com. He tweets @AHajizade.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 17 January 2018 KSA 14:45 - GMT 11:45
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