Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter this past weekend in an effort to downplay the seriousness of longstanding anti-government protests and the democratic movement for change.
Addressing the social network’s CEO Jack Dorsey, Zarif claimed that even though regime-affiliated accounts had recently been purged from the site, the “actual bots” are located in Albania, where more than 2,000 members of the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) have resided since 2016, when they were relocated from their refugee community in Iraq.
Zarif’s remarks are reminiscent of what transpired in 1978 when the Shah of Iran was on the verge of overthrow at the hands of a broadly popular uprising. As part of a desperate bid to suppress the public calls for the regime’s overthrow, martial law was declared in hopes it would effectively stop the Iranian people from gathering in the streets to express contempt for their repressive and self-serving government.
The strategy did not work, but regime propaganda suggested otherwise and projected an image of strength by downplaying the size of the ongoing protests.
In December 1978, General Gholamreza Azhari made a public statement acknowledging the sounds of people chanting slogans against the government were just a tape recording. This, of course, was untrue.
The evening following the release of Azhari’s statement, Iranians poured into the streets and made a coordinated demonstration of stamping their feet and chanting, “Stupid general, tapes do not have feet!”
The broader movement behind that demonstration was successful in driving the Shah from power, but it was a limited success, ultimately co-opted by the theocratic faction associated with Ayatollah Khomeini, contrary to the democratic aspirations of the vast majority of Iranians. This set the country on the long road toward its current situation, where people are agitating once against for the ouster of a dictatorial government.
Although the nature of the current dictatorship is much different from its predecessor, many of its behaviors are remarkably similar. This includes the repressive response to popular protests, as well as the naïve commitment to disinformation and the hope that either the domestic population or the international community will accept a portrayal of unrest as marginal, lacking in serious support, and based on deception.
Zarif would have Western leaders believe the multitudes of social media activity in support of freedom and regime change are really just the work of a handful of dissidents employing the modern equivalent of tape-recorded voices amplified through loudspeakers.
But just as tapes do not have feet, neither do social media bots. For every account posted in support of the people’s uprising, hundreds of native Iranians have personally contributed since the end of last year.
One does not need to reside in or visit an Iranian city in order to recognize the popular unrest and explicit calls for regime change are genuine, expansive, and persistent. Countless pro-democracy activists have taken video of the nationwide uprising of December and January, as well as the subsequent protests that have flared up in various Iranian localities over the past eight months.
Zarif and his colleagues understand the reality of the demonstrations closing in around them, and recognize the threat posed by those demonstrations is only amplified in the presence of a relatively free and open social media landscape.
With his latest remarks, the Foreign Minister is striving to extend Iran’s domestic internet censorship far beyond its borders, in the interest of subduing international recognition for the protests and thus buying the regime more time to deal with them. Manipulating Wikipedia to defuse false information about the dissidents is yet another aspect of the Iranian regime manipulating public opinion through false information.
As long as Dorsey and other social media industry leaders, along with Western policymakers, maintain a realistic understanding of the Iranian regime, they won’t fall for such deceptions. And as long as they don’t, Tehran will surely find itself struggling to contain the free flow of information.
The regime has long banned Twitter and Facebook among the people, in spite of numerous officials using those same networks as propaganda outlets. And yet the vast majority of social media users in Iran continue to access those services through virtual proxy networks, effectively disrupting the regime’s bid for dominance of online information.
Unfortunately, the people remain the underdogs in this fight, as Tehran continues to seek out new resources and methods for suppressing people’s voices, both online and off.
The heads of major social media sites must assist the people in countering Iran’s propaganda, by banning not only undeclared Iranian agents but also Iranian officials from those sites until such time as the regime acknowledges the universal right to information and free expression.
A broad consensus for this strategy would recognize the full extent of what can be achieved by breaking the regime’s hold on public discourse on the Islamic Republic.
Patrick Kennedy was a member of the House of Representatives from Rhode Island 1995-2011
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.