Iranwire – Psychological warfare, known by a number of names including psychological operations and “psy ops,” is one of the oldest tactics employed in wars. Such tactics are aimed at undermining the enemy’s morale and its will to fight or resist and, sometimes, at persuading the enemy to change its position. Another kind of psy-ops is propaganda aimed at strengthening the morale and the resolve of allies or one’s own forces. Efforts to manipulate the minds of prisoners of war and political prisoners are also part of psychological warfare.
In this two-part report, we examine how the Islamic Republic wages psychological warfare against its opponents, which tools it uses and whether it observes any red lines in its psychological operations.
The first part is available here. This second part introduces you to the Islamic Republic’s cyber-army or, as the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei characterizes it, “the officers of the soft war.”
The protests in Iran in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, called the world’s first “Twitter revolution,” was the opening chapter in a new era of people’s venture into politics and protest organization. Using social media to organize and to report on the protests was the biggest domestic challenge that the Islamic Republic regime had faced since its establishment. Social media enabled the people to organize big rallies within a few hours, something that previously required months.
Furthermore, social media made possible the live coverage of protests and the wide coverage of human rights violations, including the savage treatment of protesters by security forces. The videos and first-hand reports by eyewitnesses brought the crimes committed against peaceful protests to the attention of the world.
Faced with this great challenge, the Iranian government immediately got to work and, besides cutting off the internet, expanding filtering and trying to completely cut access to the world-wide web, it started to organize various units of its cyber-army to overcome the loud voices of the people on social media.
In the spring of 2018, the quarterly Journal of Security Knowledge published an article titled “A study on the role of the tactics of psychological operations in controlling the 2009 unrest.” In this article, Majid Shamani, a teacher at Imam Hossein University which trains officers and personnel for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), analyzed the role of psy ops in the suppression of the protests. The article examined the different types of peaceful protests, the performance of the forces of suppression, the coverage of protests by government-affiliated media outlets and an opinion poll of members of six battalions of Tehran’s security brigade Al-e Mohammad.
In this study, Shamani concluded that psychological operations, along with intelligence gathering, is one of the most effective ways in suppressing protests. He then suggested the following actions:
- Understanding the opportunities and unavoidable challenges of social media, and using these opportunities for defense against attacks by antagonists
- Informing and mobilizing public opinion on social media aimed at attacking hostile networks
- Pathology and analysis of actions taken to control unrest
- Creating psychological operations think-tanks and training the commanders in psy op tactics
- Devising tactics that can be used on social media to control unrest
- Launching and producing programs for the IRGC through the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and broadcasting them on various networks.
In the autumn of 2020, the quarterly Police Science published an article titled “The role of intelligence grandees in controlling unrest by riot police,” which emphasized the special role of psychological operations next to intelligence operations. Quoting from a book by Habibollah Jan-Nesari, deputy director of riot police training at the time, about the suppression of 2009 protests, the article said that “no effort must be spared in identifying the enemy before the unrest” starts.
The article then emphasized the importance of “the role of infiltrators in the ranks of the opposition and of conducting psychological operations among the rioters in order to downgrade the rioters’ demands and reactions, and sometimes to mislead the rioters and identify the core leaders of the unrest.”
This is exactly what the government started doing at least a few months after the start of the 2009 protests, and these operations have become more extensive and more complex.
These operations are conducted by various groups, each with its own duties and functions. We classify the most important of these groups into three categories: “cheerleaders,” “zombies” and “trolls.”
Cheerleaders are the same traditional propagandists that publicly publish and promote the government’s version of events. They seek to win verbal disputes and want to push public discourse in a direction that the Islamic Republic favors. Their cyber accounts usually display specific symbols that make them easy to identify – for example, the Islamic Republic’s flag in the “bio” section of the page or a picture of General Ghasem Soleiman, the assassinated commander of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force. The cheerleaders’ most important duty is to launch, promote and spread a line of discourse that is usually selected by security agencies and is then trumpeted on social media.
The cheerleaders are either selected from among well-known faces like actors, TV figures, athletes and celebrities or “long-term investments” who show promise of growth on social media.
Social media are built on an algorithm that can be called the “attention economy.” They do not exclusively show you posts by those you follow. These posts are chosen based on their level of attention and on the amount of attention you have paid to similar posts.
Aside from how much a post might be to your taste, it will be seen by others depending on the responses, positive or negative, it gets from you and others before you. In other words, social media treats the content that they publish like merchandise.
A merchandise that receives more initial responses, positive or negative, is treated by the social networks’ algorithms as a popular merchandise and is shown to more people. It makes no difference whether you responded to it with disgust or with love. The only thing that is important for social media is to increase the interaction of users with their platform because it makes selling ads possible.
Moreover, one of the dominant behavioral patterns on social media originates from the herd instinct. This means following the “herd” without interference by one’s power of reasoning and analysis.
Therefore, the chances of responding or even endorsing a post that thousands have endorsed or responded to is several times higher than the chances of a post with the same content but with a low number of responses and endorsements. But what if we could artificially create such mass responses? Wouldn’t it help us to dominate the conversation and divert the discourse toward where we want it to go?
This is where the second group, the “zombies,” are brought in.
The duty of zombies is to create this first response. Their task is to endorse and republish the posts that the cheerleaders produce so that both the cheerleaders and their posts would be viewed more and more. An army of fake accounts, including zombie accounts, promote these posts and, as a result, they are seen by the public more and more.
More importantly, the high volume of responses to these posts create the illusion that many social media users agree with their content or that the number of users who think along the same lines is very high.
A large number of zombie accounts are internet bots, software applications that run automated tasks on the internet, which are guided by Islamic Republic agencies responsible for cyber operations. Another part of these accounts are guided by human operators.
Usually, each operator is responsible for 20 to 50 fake accounts, and they endorse and republish content created by the cheerleaders. The volume of original posts produced by these accounts is usually close to zero and that is why some social media analysts call them “sock puppets,” referring to the hidden hand whose owner talks through these fake accounts.
Zombie accounts can be identified by a few characteristics:
- The number of their “following” is always greater than their “followers.”
- Their “handles” (usernames or nicknames) do not resemble real names or even aliases. They mostly resemble the serial number or a meaningless word such as “hs20ljf028$” or “kaywhyeleenq.”
- Their level of activity is either extremely high or extremely low. In the past six months, they have either tweeted thousands of times or none at all.
- They joined social media or became active at the same time that political unrest started. For example, the account “Tanha” was active from January 2018 to April 2018 and from November 2019 to May 2010 and became active again in September 2022.
Of course, these are their general characteristics and they do not mean that all such accounts belong to the government, but if they show some of these features then they are definitely suspect.
Examples of zombie accounts
Zombies play the role of foot soldiers in online battles. They provide the ammunition for the battle of narratives on social media, i.e. attention and endorsement, in order to spread the discourse favored by the cheerleaders and allow attacks by trolls on undesirable narratives.
Besides an army of zombie bots that it has deployed to support its psychological operations, the Islamic Republic has recruited thousands of real people as well for this purpose. In January 2017, Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, deputy to Iran’s attorney-general at the time and a current member of the Supreme Court, reported that 18,000 volunteers had been recruited to survey “counter-revolutionary” content in cyberspace. And in November 2020, Mohammad Reza Yazdi, commander of Tehran’s Mohammad Rasoulollah Corps, the biggest military unit in Iran responsible for crushing protests, reported the formation of 144 cyber battalions to counter the “enemies’ distortions.”
These cyber battalions play the same role in cyberspace as the role played by forces of suppression in the streets. By using zombie accounts, they promote the content produced by the cheerleaders and allow the trolls to conduct their activities.
An internet troll is usually defined as a person who engages in verbal harassment by posting inflammatory messages online intended to provoke others into displaying emotional responses, or to manipulate others’ perceptions. But government trolls, who are the most important forces in the psychological operations conducted by states like Russia, China and the Islamic Republic are a little different. They play different roles in different arenas. Sometimes, like Ruhollah Momen-Nasab, former head of the Culture Ministry’s Digital Media Center and the current secretary of cyberspace activities of the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces political party, spread disinformation by creating numerous fake accounts under the names of famous figures, and, sometimes, launch campaigns of fake news under the guise of opposition figures. But the most important job of the trolls is to create confusion and mayhem.
Unlike cheerleaders, they are not seeking to promote specific narratives even if the content they publish might seem otherwise. The most important task for trolls is to create suspicion and destroy trust. If people are suspicious of everything, either nobody would believe anything or anybody would believe something.
Jenna Matthews, a social media specialist, says that the troll’s most important goal is to make people believe there is no truth. They only want to create confrontation and sow divisions, and it does not matter whose side they take.
The Islamic Republic has created one of the biggest troll armies in the world. In October 2018, Twitter reported that it has taken action against states that try to conduct campaigns of fake news and misinformation on Twitter. In the same year, Twitter took down 4,779 accounts belonging to agents of the Islamic Republic while blocking only four similar Russian accounts.
Twitter classified these accounts based on their mission: 1,666 of the accounts had tweeted around 2 million times, presenting the world news as narrated by media outlets and Twitter accounts affiliated with the regime, which is the mission of the zombies; 248 accounts exclusively tweeted propaganda against Israel; the other 2,865 accounts held counterfeit IDs. By faking the IDs of actual journalists or by claiming that they worked for reputable international media outlets, they tried to distort and confuse the discussions on political issues in Iran.
Government trolls, especially those focusing on psychological warfare against protesters, follow a specific formula which can be recognized by those who have a chance to closely examine their work.
- Degrading Discourse to a Game: They downgrade social and political developments to a game, to something like a sports competition that leaves you no choice but to support one team or the other. This is how they polarize the situation and control the most extreme parts of both sides. In a situation where rational dialogue is needed to find solutions, everything turns into a childish competition between one side and the other.
- Verbal Radicalism: They usually protest against the government more than anyone else. They say things against the government that can lead to heavy punishment. In this way, they gain the trust of the target group. They also appear more extremist than anyone else in supporting the group they claim to support. And they know very well which groups are ready to accept them as like-minded or at least allies and which ideas have the potential to be radicalized to the point of reaching a nightmarish idea or a bad joke.
- Attacking Effective and Practical Actions: Verbally, trolls are the brave generals on the battlefield. But if an effective and pragmatic idea is presented, they will attack it without exception because, on the one hand, their job is to drain the energy of protesters through verbal extremes and empty but radical slogans, and, on the other hand, they aim to prevent effective organization, gathering of forces, and planning for action. Government trolls always agree with the general ideas but do not agree with any detailed program or planning. For example, government trolls forcefully encourage attacking the government, dismantling the oppression machinery and taking revenge on the mercenaries, but, at the same time, warn against practical steps for seeking justice, organizing protests in front of the parliaments of Western countries, building networks for financial support of strikes, creating political organizations or fundraising groups for the families of the prisoners.
- Focusing on Promoting Distrust and Despair: The trolls’ most important task is the same as the main goal of psychological operations, i.e., weakening the enemy’s morale and breaking the resistance, unity and order of the opposing forces.
Inciting verbal quarrels and hate-mongering against different groups in a comprehensive and daily manner ultimately leaves the public with a chaotic and disappointing scene which suggests that resistance forces have disintegrated, whereas what we see is merely a puppet show by cyber forces in which an army of zombies and groups of inexperienced and ignorant social media users play the role of foot soldiers.