Iran is not the most tech-savvy nation. There is one aspect of digital life, though, that the Islamic Republic has subsidized and cultivated religiously, and that is cyberwarfare, centered around stoking up fighters on X, formerly known as Twitter. While smearing X and other social media networks as imperialistic artifacts, the leadership in Tehran has organized a battalion of cyber infantry comprising young devotees of the revolution, doctorate-holding gurus, fledgling clerics being taught at seminaries and firebrand commentators.
They are all given the same instructions: to forcibly win a war of narratives against their own skeptical people and anyone else in the world who doesn’t sympathize with the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian government has long codified restrictions on every aspect of the people’s online rights and curtailed their internet access. The popular social media app X, which has only recently begun to crumble under its new owner, has not been spared. Authorities preach to the public to stay away from the global internet, launching occasional diatribes on the many immoralities of foreign-based social media networks.
At the same time, however, they have found the glamor of the X platform so irresistible that the amount of time they spend on it daily outrages the average Iranian. Financing troll armies, pseudo-intellectuals, pundits and commentators whose day jobs boil down to waging wars on X is now the forte of a government that has officially banned the site.
Under President Ebrahim Raisi, Iran has sabotaged the internet and its trappings, and access to the most rudimentary online services has become a daunting task. The status quo flies in the face of campaign promises made by the orthodox cleric, who had boasted of his 2 million Instagram followers in a televised debate, directly appealing to youngsters by asking how annoying it was for them to encounter disruptions while playing online games because of low bandwidth, vowing to extend high-quality, high-speed connectivity to all Iranians.
Two years into his presidency, most of these campaign promises, including a commitment to Iranians’ digital rights, lie in tatters. Instead, the government has pursued an agenda of social strangulation, which has been manifested in a censorship regime aimed at obliterating the internet to a point just short of a full shutdown.
If the policies of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology since 2021 are any guide, it should be no surprise that the latest social media innovation, Threads, has also been blocked. Blocking, banning, closing down, penalizing and restricting are the default procedures in the Islamic Republic’s responses to many of the phenomena of the modern world.
Long before Iran gained notoriety as the country enforcing one of the most restrictive internet surveillance and censorship frameworks in the world, Twitter — as it was then — became the casualty of a bitter electoral feud. Back in 2009, when the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared himself victor in a presidential race many Iranians believed was rigged, mass protests broke out, and the site emerged as a crucible of dissent as well as a facilitator of protest on the streets. One of the government’s first remedies to contain the uprising was to pull the plug on the platform.
Ahmadinejad’s legacy of removing Twitter from the tiny sliver of officially available online services has not been reversed after 14 years, even though he himself joined in 2017 to cloying fanfare, posturing as an intellectual committed to civil liberties. Yet the ban did not prevent passionate netizens from trying to bypass the constraints, using virtual private networks (VPNs) to access what had morphed into a universal digital fixture appealing to the young and old alike. VPNs, which are in part merchandised and sometimes promoted by the government itself, have long eased the pain of draconian internet restrictions for Iranians who wish only to maintain a regular online life. There’s a lineup of certified technology contractors working with the government who are tasked with giving out efficient VPNs to customers who register with them in return for fixed fees.
At the same time as blocking major social media providers one after another, the Islamic Republic has furthered its work on a domestic internet, boasting a motley crew of applications, such as instant messaging apps and makeshift social media platforms, which the authorities encourage people to use as replacements for the “diabolical” Western apps designed to contaminate the minds of the pious Iranians. The fact that, despite their continuous disparagement of internationally used social media, the influential members of the ruling elite never abandoned those platforms, including X, only underscored the hypocrisy.
These nationally developed online tools have a harrowing track record with regard to protecting data and privacy. Speculations that the vaunted domestic platforms are developed and financed by the IT affiliates of the security apparatus and, as such, remain susceptible to wiretapping by the authorities have long swirled around, making most Iranians wary of joining them. In July, an employee of the Bale Messenger app published a snapshot of his work computer’s screen, revealing the extent of his carte blanche access to individual users’ private chats. The viral screenshot prompted the app executives to release a statement, trying to patch up their reputation, albeit to little avail — it had already stirred a big controversy. The managers of Rubika, a cross-platform messaging app that claims it carries more than 500 million messages between Iranian users daily, have confirmed that they use AI to detect and expunge content considered “immoral” from people’s communications. Every day, nearly 8,000 such messages are identified and deleted. Based on experience, it’s quite likely that the AI statement is a bluff and that the app’s content moderators are sanitizing users’ exchanges manually.
Given that Bale Messenger, iGap and Eitaa are being marketed to them as laudable domestic technology breakthroughs to supplant Instagram, WhatsApp and X, Iranians wonder why the most hardline MPs, government ministers, military commanders, senior clerics and other unelected revolutionaries hang about on X all the time, defying the very regulations put in place by their own government. Why don’t they turn to those indigenous widgets to promote what they have to say? The glaring inconsistencies have never dissuaded the clerical establishment from making lavish investments to prop up battalions of online crusaders tasked with ensuring that the version of truth favored by the Islamic Republic triumphs over the alleged skulduggery of Western civilization.
The leadership is communicating a message of impregnability; that it bans X because it deems it to be the right strategy in regulating people’s social media diets, while deploying the same embargoed courier to push its own desired narrative. From the supreme leader to the president, from literally every senior member of the administration to provincial governors and mayors, the Islamic Republic ideologues and bureaucrats alike use X as an effective apparatus of persuasion, publicity and virtue-signaling.
In June, government spokesperson Ali Bahadori Jahromi offered a rather novel rationalization for why officials keep using the “contraband” social media platforms at a time when they remain proscribed for the public. In a meeting with University of Tehran students, he likened the government members’ prerogative of using the foreign-based social media to the police’s right to carry arms. “The public doesn’t have access to weapons, but police do, and it is possible to obtain permits for hunting guns under certain circumstances, as well. The same applies to platforms, and it’s the case in most countries,” he said.
“We have several million Iranians overseas, and aside from the foreigners we wish to make our position known to, officials should be able to communicate with them through these platforms,” he added.
In a society that has been kept chronically insulated and out-of-sync with the developments of technology, Twitter enticed the reactionaries by allowing messages to crisscross the world instantly and be conveyed to thousands, if not millions, of people. At a time when propaganda and state indoctrination had barely graduated beyond the awkwardness of bulky billboards at the sides of streets, Twitter arrived as a novelty and, before long, the government poured substantial sums of money into massive posting campaigns.
In 2020, the Municipality of Tehran commissioned a Twitter user to produce content for its international relations department through an 11-month contract valued at 3.9 billion rials. The publicity budget earmarked for the inauguration of a new modern hospital in Tehran included a paycheck of 1.9 billion rials for the production and dissemination of content on Twitter, as well as 600 million rials for hyping a posting storm. The hospital was opened by President Raisi earlier in July — he runs a verified X account. With all of this, X remains a banned service, at least on paper.
In August 2022, it was revealed that the Mobarakeh Steel Company had paid an ensemble of Twitter junkies a total of 4.1 billion rials to initiate an online “media current” and thwart a parliamentary inquiry into a major corruption case implicating the firm’s top executives that involved financial misconduct to the tune of 9.1 trillion rials.
These examples of run-of-the-mill PR agendas draining the nation’s wealth scarcely scratch the surface of the Iranian government’s deep infatuation with X. There is little clarity as to how much it is splurging on its key reputational battles, such as popularizing its foreign policy resolutions, evangelizing its compulsory hijab enforcement and espousing its extravagant nuclear quest. No structured academic study of Iran’s expenditure on troll armies is at hand to illuminate in quantitative terms the taxpayer funds that are being doled out to keyboard warriors who are hired to win, or at least try to win, battles over narratives online.
The sheer number of young clerics-to-be still receiving seminary education, 20-something members of the Basij militia, government-affiliated profiteers identifying themselves with the idiosyncratic title of “media activist” and other “connected” youths between jobs who are happy to engage in “revolutionary” fiddling about with X is enormous. All they do is tweet or retweet platitudes they know would please the ayatollah, engage in verbal skirmishes with the “enemies” of the state, and educate, in their own ways, the Westernized fellow citizens they believe are still capable of being directed to the right path.
They abhor the manifestations of Western culture, but condone wielding their iPhones and bad-mouthing their progressive, pro-reform rivals in inflammatory posts. They say they are uncompromisingly opposed to the United States and that it is the “Great Satan,” but keep rehashing analogies and drawing false equivalencies between Iran and the U.S., counterintuitively portraying America as a yardstick of successful statecraft against which every country should be assessed. When there’s a debate brewing at home about the housing crisis and the state’s mishandling of the real estate market, they rush to tweet pictures of the homeless in San Francisco.
With over 147,000 followers, the X handle of Iran Newspaper, the official organ of the government and once a respected daily that catered to the interests of a broad spectrum of readers, has now evolved into a de facto propaganda megaphone, consistently tweeting and retweeting posts that pour scorn on the U.S. and other Western countries, satirizing their unemployment, poverty and inflation metrics and climate disasters. Far from maintaining journalistic decorum as one of the nation’s longest-running publications, Iran Newspaper’s X page now resembles the musings of a hotheaded patriotic teenager who hurls expletives at everyone to insinuate his country is the superior nation. One of the latest posts on its timeline is a 40-second clip of random people in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia injecting fentanyl and xylazine in public. The caption alludes to the “zombie drug” consumption skyrocketing in the “Kensington city of America.”
Instead of amplifying the stories released in the daily, the account bangs out frequent infographics, suggesting how remarkable the achievements of the Iranian administration are and how advanced the country has become — something plainly contradicted by the lived experiences of Iranians who are wrestling with pauperization and disenfranchisement on a daily basis. Many of these tweets include overtly false information, including one in which it was claimed President Raisi’s trip to Indonesia in May was the first such trip by an Iranian president in 17 years, which allegedly warranted appreciation of Raisi’s outreach to a neglected Asian power. His predecessor Hassan Rouhani had traveled to Indonesia in April 2015, but the account administrators decided to gloss over this for the sake of the story, and widely circulated something that was, at best, misinformation.
On the surface, the ultraconservative musketeers of Persian-language X are preoccupied with one of the relics of modernity, but the philosophies they propagate through it are frozen in the Dark Ages. They don’t flinch from exposing themselves to public disdain by spreading ideas that are overtly xenophobic, misogynistic, antisemitic, racist, parochial and intolerant of other cultures and religions. Because they are convinced they have a mandate to safeguard the tenets of the Islamic Republic and the purity of a religion they believe has been sullied by imperfect Muslims, those prejudices appear legitimate to them.
There is no shortage of X users attacking female presenters of state TV, who, despite having been vetted by an Orwellian media behemoth and adhering to its most rigorous strictures, including its dress code, fail to satisfy the unwritten standards of the most conservative religious groups, for instance by wearing a modest amount of makeup on air. There are still communities of Iranians on social media who denigrate Jews as “filthy” and celebrate, often through tweet storms, the idea of annihilating Israel within the next 25 years. Some of them, either on their own or commissioned by the state, are working to trace blood links between Iran’s present rulers and the 12 infallible Shia Imams, implying that there’s a line of descent that connects them. Such tweets often go viral in no time. Others, through exaggerated visualizations and misleading data, inculcate the view that people in such countries as North Korea, Venezuela, Russia and Libya who have resisted “Western imperialism” live happy and prosperous lives.
Occasionally, it is not ironclad certainties that dictate how the Iranian zealots of X conduct themselves online and pronounce on different questions. It’s also a matter of who is sponsoring the content churned out, which at times produces obtrusive mood swings, changes of opinion and public retractions bringing about mortifying spectacles. In 2020, when the price of red meat exceeded 2 million rials per kilogram for the first time, Iran’s reactionary Twitter lieutenants teamed up to pillory the Rouhani administration for bungling the economy, poking fun at the then-president for not being able to contain the prices even with a deal he had struck with world powers to have international sanctions lifted. Last month, on the watch of President Raisi, who had promised he wouldn’t allow negotiations with global powers to affect people’s livelihoods, beef stewing meat averaged 6 million rials, and the combatants’ agenda on X has shifted to blaming the fluctuations of the global economy for these mishaps.
In line with most publicity efforts the Islamic Republic orchestrates, its X campaigns are not nuanced and delicate; it’s rather easy to spot them. In June 2019, the platform took down nearly 4,800 accounts linked with the Iranian government as part of its crackdown on misinformation. It was common then, and it is becoming so again, to find dozens of distinct accounts posting the same notes and images about a specific theme the government seems to care about.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) runs a “cyber headquarters,” also known as the Center to Investigate Organized Crime, which is apparently in charge of countering “domestically and internationally organized activities” against Iran’s national security, though its inner workings and actual responsibilities are quite shady. It’s believed that it employs 45,000 people, and the British government sanctioned it in July for being “involved in cyber operations targeting political dissidents inside Iran, resulting in the arrest of dozens of cyber activists and web administrators.” With so many X handles rhapsodizing about the deceased and current IRGC commanders and reiterating the most extreme visions of Iranian politics, a large number of the cyber headquarters’ employees could be undercover X operatives.
The probability of making blunders is very high when the members of X armies feel the urge to adopt a position on a certain fault line, as a matter of obligation or whenever exuding radicalism is construed as a mark of devoutness. On Dec. 24, 2021, a Twitter user with a relatively large follower base posted a statement from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had denounced the use of nuclear weapons at the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran in 2012. In his initial tweet, he didn’t mention the name of the speaker, and a barrage of derogatory comments was soon unleashed on his timeline by the “revolutionaries,” who argued the Islamic Republic had to finally pluck up the courage to become a nuclear threshold state to deter prospective threats after years of enduring sanctions, and that whoever made that statement was a short-sighted imbecile with no understanding of national interest.
The ensuing scene was surreal, after the user disclosed that those statements were made by the leader verbatim, and the loyalists were, in effect, demeaning the spiritual chieftain whose words are treated as divinely revealed and near-sacred. In trying to be more Catholic than the Pope and taking an excessively nationalistic stance by apologizing for the stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons, the young offspring of the revolution had crossed a serious red line: contradicting the supreme leader, who, at least rhetorically, had disavowed such armaments. It wasn’t so easy to make up for the debacle afterward.
One user responded to the initial tweet by commenting “possessing any form of weaponry serves as a deterrence against aggression by foreign adversaries. Please do some reading before talking about things!” After the clarification, he rushed to correct himself in a comment meant to redress the screw-up, writing: “I hadn’t realized this part of the tweet that these were quotes by Imam Khamenei. … Of course I value his highness’s opinions over mine as he has made successful efforts and studies in the fields of science, politics and devotion in a lifetime.”
The Islamic Republic applies barriers to the use of social media by ordinary Iranians while greasing the wheels of troll armies and squads of online activists to fight for its ideological missions using the same paraphernalia. Although the two strategies appear to be incongruous, it has contented itself with this divisive roadmap. The common rationales for objecting to free internet access invoked by the sympathizers of the leadership are that the global network is exploited by ill-wishers to destabilize the nation, upend the Islamicity of society, proselytize the Western lifestyle and pave the way for security infiltrations deep into the system.
Yet when it comes to launching comparable projects to undermine rival countries or spin the portrayal of events, X and other internet tools are given a free pass. They are to be harnessed for any means that merit state sponsorship, and the users needed for the mission are under an umbrella of protection. They are the greenlighted stalwarts of the revolution generating tweets, not aberrant, “Westoxified” middle-class Iranians.
In 2018, Twitter released a report lifting the veil on troll armies operated by Iran and Russia. A total of 770 Iran-originated accounts published 1 million tweets between 2016 and 2018 in concerted influence campaigns. Closer scrutiny showed a large number of those tweets were pointedly critical of Saudi Arabia, finding fault with the kingdom for its alleged commission of war crimes in Yemen. The thrust was set in motion right after the diplomatic rupture between Tehran and Riyadh, and the instruction given to the young tweeters was to bad-mouth the Saudi adversary. Seven years later, and on the heels of an unprecedented rapprochement, the same hardliners are heaping praise on the kingdom for running the Hajj rites smoothly, among other achievements.
The contrast between the old tweets of a noted ultraconservative TV anchor who had published several disparaging posts about Saudi Arabia between 2019 and 2022, including a line of poetry wishing the flag of Saudi Arabia to be emblazoned with the name of the first Shiite Imam Ali — a sectarian provocation — and his new tweets praising Tehran-Riyadh diplomacy was soon noticed and exposed by social media users.
As opposed to the streets, where the morality police, vigilantes and plainclothes enforcers guarantee the Islamic Republic remains in the driver’s seat, the online world in general and X in particular are much harder to dominate intellectually. People, often thanks to ambiguous identities, anonymity and geographical distance, challenge dogmas, vocalize protest and don’t avoid the elephant in the room when there’s a reason to shame a public official. Still, the decision-makers in Tehran are agreed that X is soft power and, however clumsily they handle it, they don’t wish to be dispossessed of this tool of supremacy.
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