For years, Iran has been ramping up its online influence operations. Now, that social media presence is being used to spread messages about the U.S.' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and protests for racial justice. Some of it is false. Some of it is just unflattering to the U.S.
"One of the key narratives that Iranian officials, Iranian accounts started to push was that U.S. sanctions were the reason why Iran was unable to sort of handle the COVID-19 outbreak," said Ariane Tabatabai, who tracks social media activity from Iran. "There is some truth, and that's something that rights groups have said for a while. But, the way that the Iranians were presenting it has kind of gone into the disinformation realm quite a bit."
Tabatabai says one of Iran's motives in spreading these COVID-19 narratives is to push back against sanctions by appealing to European audiences. Twitter and Facebook are effectively banned in Iran, but not in Europe, where some countries still have power to offset U.S. sanctions.
"What seems to drive a lot of the activity is actually external issues, to essentially try to galvanize the international community against the U.S. and rally them around the Iranian flag to stop the maximum pressure campaign on U.S. sanctions."
Iran has also used American demonstrations on racial justice to shine light on how the U.S. treats its own minorities and protesters. Tabatabai said this narrative is being spread to show how the U.S. can be hypocritical when it comes to criticizing other countries over their domestic affairs.
"In the case of the protests, they haven’t done a ton of misinformation, actually. What they’ve been doing is highlighting what our own press and media have been reporting, within a framework that is, of course, that is very critical of the United States in general, and that is kind of favorable to Iran."
Tabatabai says it’s still too early to know to what effect Iran’s messaging might have on the U.S. and its allies, especially because it’s less sophisticated than Chinese or Russian operations. In some cases, Iran is even pushing Chinese messaging instead of its own.
“The Chinese, of course, have been trying to present themselves as part of the cure for COVID-19. And Iran has very much been pushing this messaging as well, trying to say that China, not the United States, is the solution.”