By Rana Armanous, Samuel Rubenfeld and Audrey Everist
Tuesday, February 16, 2021
Global disinformation efforts originating from Iran share a number of common traits with other state-sponsored campaigns, including amplification of content across networks, the promotion of material from connected journalists, and the hosting of coordinated events and seminars, according to a Kharon investigation.
Iran-backed disinformation networks draw on elements found in Russian operations that were cited in a 2020 report by the U.S. State Department, including the exploitation of government-funded global messaging platforms and the cultivation of proxy sources, as well as cyber-enabled amplification and the weaponization of social media. The department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) has taken what it calls an “ecosystem” approach to monitor the various disinformation vectors, and to craft policies that counter their operations.
Some Iranian-linked outlets publish government and proxy perspectives on current events, while others push conspiracy theories and other disinformation, such as the idea that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy, or the repetition of unchecked Syrian government claims about the use of chemical weapons.
One such Iranian disinformation organization is the Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), a body established in 2007 by the government to coordinate its global media efforts, Kharon reported in January 2019. The organization, which supports media outlets across the globe with funding, content and training, has more than 200 members and was sanctioned by the U.S. in October for trying to influence the U.S. presidential election won by President Joe Biden.
IRTVU is also a propaganda arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), the external operations component of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), amplifying false narratives and posting disparaging propaganda in English to sow discord among Americans, the Treasury said in October. The IRGC was designated in April 2019 as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
The International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), an IRTVU arm, was also sanctioned by the U.S. in October for publishing conspiracy theories and disinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Amplified Content Across the Network Amid U.S. Crackdown
Propaganda outlets across the world, some of which have had their domains seized by the U.S., amplify content produced by entities associated with Iranian outlets, according to a review by Kharon.
Content from IUVM has been shared by Iraq-based Knooz Media, Lebanon-based Maraya International, and Syria-based Samidon Press, according to a review by Kharon of the outlets’ websites. IUVM itself has shared several articles from Iranian news outlets, as well as content from Al Sudan Al Youm (Sudan Today), which was described by Reuters as one of IUVM’s “most popular users.”
The U.S. has focused on web domains in recent months, seizing dozens tied to influence campaigns conducted by, and terror groups linked to, the IRGC.
In some cases, however, Iranian disinformation networks have reconstituted their online platforms after a U.S. seizure. Aletejah TV, an IRTVU member outlet controlled by Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), an Iran-backed Iraqi militia designated since 2009 as an FTO, has created a new domain, “aletejahtv.iq,” following the seizure last year of “Aletejahtv.com” and “Aletejahtv.org.”
Prosecutors in October seized KH’s main domain, but the group still has an active site -- “kataibhezbollah.org.” Registration for that domain is anonymized, but its registrar is Aerotek Bilisim Taahut Sanayi Ve Ticaret Ltd Sti, a Turkish firm, records show.
Nujaba TV, another IRTVU member, is run by Harakat Al-Nujaba (HAN), a separate Iran-backed Iraqi militia; the outlet recently announced the launch of a new, Hebrew-language website to “address the Zionist enemy” in its own tongue.
The U.S. has seized multiple HAN news web domains. HAN responded in November to one of the seizures, stating that “all of its [America’s] efforts failed” to “silence the voice of the Islamic resistance;” that month, it created a new website, “alnojaba-news.com,” following the U.S. seizure of “alnujaba-news.com.”
Prior to the domain’s seizure in October, the news outlet Afghan Wolas had focused on political issues in Afghanistan, but also shared an article from Pars Today, an arm of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) that amplified the Iranian government's foreign policy goals, including Iran’s efforts to promote peace in Afghanistan.
Africa Truth, whose domain was also seized in October, had shared reporting from IUVM Press and PressTV, the Iranian broadcaster, including coronavirus conspiracy theories and anti-Israel content. And Naijafox, a third outlet seized in October, was based in Nigeria and shared content from Africa Truth, Pars Today and Hausa TV, an IRIB channel focused on West Africa.
Some of the disinformation published by seized outlets had targeted American audiences, pushing the views of political extremists.
The American Herald Tribune had fanned flames over potential violence related to mail-in voting, Kharon reported in the days after the election; in November, the outlet’s web domain was seized by prosecutors as part of the larger operation against IRGC influence campaigns.
Critical Studies, a U.S.-focused outlet whose website was seized alongside that of the American Herald Tribune, had shared articles published first by leftist outlets, Kharon found.
US Journal, another outlet whose domains were seized by the U.S., shares common authors and content with leftist media organizations, including CounterPunch and Common Dreams. And an interview conducted by Real Progressive Front with Stephen Lendman, who has written for Russia Insider, Tehran Times, Common Dreams, Mehr News and elsewhere, was shared by multiple media outlets whose websites were seized by the U.S.; Real Progressive Front’s site was also taken down.
Whatsupic, whose domain was seized in October, shared content produced by All Self-Sustained, a survivalist website, and work from ZeroHedge, a far-right financial site that engages in conspiracy theories. ZeroHedge historically published articles under the byline of “Tyler Durden,” a pseudonym referring to the character from the novel and film “Fight Club.”
IRTVU affiliates are also engaged in developing and sharing video content across the network. Morteza Shabani, the managing director of the Iran-based Truth Documentary Film Center, said in a 2018 interview that the organization’s “duty” is to provide services to IRTVU network members. The organization as of 2019 produced films with regional allies, having worked with the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Afghanistan, the Syrian army and Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq.
The documentary film center also captured photos and film footage daily from Iraq and Syria, but some of it is prohibited for release, with Shabani suggesting in the 2018 interview that it “may create problems internationally” for the Iranian government.
Shared Domain Registration
Several web domains of outlets involved in Iranian disinformation share common registrants, records show.
Six domains seized by the U.S. government this fall were registered by Arab Domain Provider, including sites associated with Yemeni outlet Al-Ahd, the Iranian cartoon production firm Foresight Media and Ansar-Allah, an outlet associated with the Houthis, according to registration records. The Houthis are an Iran-backed Yemeni group; the Biden administration on Tuesday revoked the FTO designation of the Houthis made in Trump’s final days.
Arab Domain Provider has used multiple email addresses to conduct domain registrations; one of those emails was used in the registration of dozens of other websites, including ones that have not been seized by U.S. authorities, registration records show.
Kaveh Khalegi, an individual based in Turkey, registered domains for IUVM, including IUVM App and IUVM Press. Khalegi provided similar services to other websites associated with disinformation, including yemenshia.com and gahvare.com, according to registration records. These domains are no longer active, however.
Khalegi also registered islamic-sources.com, an active website focused on books and articles by Iranian Shia scholars that also features a number of Islamic centers based in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Coordinated Training and Support for Opposition Movements
Deeb Sarhan, the editor-in-chief of Syria Scope, another outlet whose domains were seized in October, attended a training by the Beirut-based IRTVU subsidiary Union Center for Media Training to become a media trainer, according to an August 2019 interview.
The Union Center for Media Training conducts trainings for outlets that are a part of Iran’s proxy and disinformation strategies. The training sessions are similar to professional development courses offered for traditional journalists, Kharon found. Dia Abu Taam, a host and producer for Hizballah-controlled al-Manar, conducted a course on field reporting this past June.
Managers from the proxy networks themselves have also received training from the Union Center for Media Training. This past March, Najeeb al-Ashmouri, a news director for the Houthi-controlled al-Masirah TV, participated in a course on editing and crafting headlines.
Iran also leverages opposition movements and groups in various locales as part of its use of propaganda and disinformation to influence social environments, domain records show.
In Bahrain, al-Abdal Media has become a clearing house for the statements of IRGC-supported Bahraini militant groups, including two sanctioned by the U.S. and U.K., in addition to publishing stories on regional developments with a pro-Iran bias.
The outlet co-produced content glorifying attacks in Bahrain by the al-Ashtar Brigades, which are sanctioned by the U.S. and U.K.
Multiple domains associated with al-Abdal Media were initially registered by Saeid Taei, an individual with an Iranian phone number who also registered the website of the al-Wafa Islamic Party, a Bahraini political group led by a sanctioned al-Ashtar Brigades leader.
In Yemen, Iran’s support and cultivation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels continues on the media front, through al-Masirah’s membership in IRTVU, the position of the former CEO of al-Masirah as the Houthi ambassador to Iran, and the establishment of an IRTVU branch in Sana’a.
However, Iran’s propaganda and disinformation efforts in Yemen stretch beyond the Houthis, the U.S. domain seizures show.
Two of the Yemeni outlets with domains seized in the action, Aden Times and Aden Al Youm, are tied to Yemen’s southern secessionist movement, a group accused of receiving Iranian support prior to the country’s current civil war. The Aden Times domain was registered by Mohammad Al Naamani, the site’s editor in chief and a U.K.-based Southern Movement leader.
Al Naamani has also appeared on Iranian Arabic-language media to discuss developments in Yemen while serving as a branch coordinator for the Arab-Islamic Gathering to Support the Choice of Resistance, an organization supportive of Iran’s foreign policy strategy in the Middle East. Adbul Karim Salem Alsaadi, an author for Aden Al Youm as of late 2019, is also a Southern Movement leader.
Analysts from the Counterterrorism/Middle East team contributed to this report.
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