Cases of people being infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) reportedly began emerging in Iran in mid-February. The virus spread rapidly across the country and the Islamic Republic became the epicenter of the region’s outbreak in early March. Instead of concentrating on charting a path and assisting the international community in addressing this grave public health crisis, Tehran and its agents appear to be spending their political and financial capital on spreading disinformation and propaganda.
One of the fake news stories that pro-Iran operatives have been propagating is linked to the narrative that the virus was deliberately created by another government. For example, when the reports of coronavirus first appeared in Iran, a pro-Tehran influencing operation, known as the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), began a social media disinformation campaign. It suggested that the US government created the virus in order to advance and maintain its global hegemony, according to a new report by social media analyst Graphika. The report describes the character of IUVM as “a prolific operator that is centered on websites rather than social media. Its long-running practice has been to create or copy web-based content that amplifies Iranian government narratives, then post it to social media accounts that pose as independent news outlets or journalists.”
The Iranian regime has become masterful at taking advantage of important events in order to incite antagonism toward its rivals, including the West and Gulf states. In this case, the objective of the disinformation campaign was most likely to incite anti-Americanism and hatred toward the US’ allies during these uncertain times. Graphika pointed out that, through its posts on social media, the IUVM argued that “it is no coincidence that the virus selectively goes to countries that are considered enemies of the United States, namely China, Iran, some EU countries, including Italy.”
It is unrealistic to say that the US or any other government would deliberately create this virus in order to advance its national interests. It is worth noting that America has overtaken Italy to have the world’s highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 800,000 confirmed cases and about 50,000 fatalities. The coronavirus-related economic slowdown in the US has also seen the unemployment rate reach 13 percent, its highest level since the Great Depression of the early 1930s. And the US equities market has lost trillions of dollars in value, while some economists believe that the long-term negative impact of the virus on the US economy could be even greater.
Iran’s covert disinformation operations concerning COVID-19 are not only inciting hatred toward other countries, but are also most likely negatively impacting the international community’s efforts to fight the virus. The US’ deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, Laura Cooper, stressed in an April 13 statement: “These are messages that are endangering global health because they’re undermining the efforts of governments, of health agencies and of organizations that are in charge of disseminating accurate information about the virus to the public.”
This is not the first time the Iranian regime’s disinformation operations have been detected. In August 2018, a cybersecurity firm, FireEye, revealed data about Iran’s widespread misinformation campaigns. Following the report, the giant social media platforms took action and removed hundreds of accounts reportedly linked to the Iranian government. Facebook removed “652 pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services.” Other popular social media outlets, such as Twitter and Google owner Alphabet, have also identified and removed many “inauthentic” accounts that originated in Iran.
These accounts were promoting specific narratives that advanced the regime’s interests, such as arguing that Iran’s militaristic engagements in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are for humanitarian purposes; that the Islamic Republic enjoys legitimacy domestically and regionally; that some of the Gulf states should be treated as enemies; and that Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
However, whenever social media accounts or websites linked to the Iranian regime’s disinformation campaigns are exposed and removed, the Islamic Republic is able to find other outlets or create new accounts to continue spreading its propaganda. By using the latest technology and employing various methods, such as generating and disseminating fabricated headlines and videos and propagating fake news and inaccurate pictures, the regime is able to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.
During these critical times, it is incumbent on the international community and powerful social media outlets to prevent the Iranian regime and its operatives from spreading disinformation and disseminating fake news concerning the coronavirus.