Why the protests in Iran over Mahsa Amini’s death are so hard to understand

Protesters in Iran have been resisting the government there for over two months, in response to the death of the young woman Mahsa Amini in police custody. Since September, more than 18,000 Iranians have been arrested, among them at least 70 journalists. Close to 500 protesters have been killed.

But at times, it’s been difficult for news outlets and newsmakers to convey the complete picture of the emerging protest movement and its aftershocks.

Last weekend, US newspapers sent news alerts about Iran abolishing its so-called morality police, the authority that had arrested Amini in September. But that wasn’t the full story, and US outlets quickly reframed what was initially a definitive news article. Iran’s state media said comments from Iran’s attorney general had been misinterpreted. It was more of a sign of the stress that the regime is under, perhaps, than a policy change.

This comes after a false report circulated in mid-November that Iran would execute 15,000 of the protesters. It was later debunked, but not until after it became a meme shared by influential posters. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even tweeted it out.

And though not as extreme, the New Yorker’s first article on the protests in late September said that exiled activist Masih Alinejad was leading the protests. She has indeed come under attack from Iranian intelligence agents, but many observers disputed the idea that the New York-based Voice of America journalist played a key role. “Today, few of the young people on the streets of Iran’s cities and towns are saying Alinejad’s name,” Brandeis professor Naghmeh Sohrabi wrote in a letter to the magazine.

Why is this such a difficult set of political developments to make sense of?

In a severely restricted country with limited press freedoms, the information environment is poor and prone to exploitation. The protests defying the government are horizontal and leaderless, with Iranians agitating not for reforms but for fundamental change. These are strengths in many ways, but also structural conditions that can impair a clear presentation of what’s happening in Iran.

And then there are the groups deliberately trying to shape (or misshape) the story. As protesters in Iran counter a brutal regime, online battles are unfolding among the diaspora. More sinisterly, Iranian American journalists have seen a wave of online attacks that look like a coordinated influence campaign, and Iranian government–linked hackers have baited journalists and experts.

Internet researchers say the inorganic online activity around these protests is unprecedented.

“I’ve not seen something of this scale before,” Marc Owen Jones, a professor and author of Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East, told me. Some 330 million tweets on the Mahsa Amini hashtag in Persian were sent — in one month, he said. “By way of comparison, #BlackLivesMatter over eight years got about 83 million. And since February, the word #Ukraine has been mentioned 240 million times,” he added. It renders the hashtag useless for news consumers looking for real-time analysis of what’s happening.

Despite all those bots and troll armies, powerful videos of anti-government resistance continue to reach our feeds. The focus needs to remain on accountability for the Iranian protesters who have died and their impetus for protesting in the first place.

The information flow from a highly restricted Iran

With a lack of press freedom in Iran, knowledge of the country is hampered. Getting it out of the country is even harder.

The Western press was on the scene during the 2009 protests, but just a handful of foreign news agencies continue to work on the ground. “There is no reform movement left but there is still a reformist press,” Barbara Slavin, a former journalist who researches Iran at the Atlantic Council, told me. “We have, still, some very brave Iranian journalists, like the ones who wrote that Mahsa Amini was killed in police custody, and immediately found themselves in jail for reporting that.”

An Iranian man holding his smartphone looks on while standing under an anti-social networking banner in Tehran Grand Bazaar.

An anti-social networking banner in Tehran Grand Bazaar, December 3, 2022.
Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reporters Without Borders has described Iran as “one of the world’s ten worst countries for press freedom.” The government closely monitors social media and cracks down on reporters posting updates on the protests. “What is new is the amount of violence that they are using while they are arresting journalists,” researcher Yeganeh Rezaian told Nieman Reports.

None of this is helped by the fact the US does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, which means there is no American embassy and no diplomats in the country.

By extension, the Iranian government can be difficult for the US government to understand. There is often talk of hardliners and reformists within the Iranian government, and the outsized role played by the aging Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader. Many US analysts on the far-right side of the spectrum talk about the mullahs and the ayatollahs, language that gets batted around by the likes of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which further obscures how politics really works in the country.

Though the religious authority of Khamenei is important, it’s also worth noting that Iran holds elections. Turnout was low and many political rivals were disqualified in the flawed 2021 election that brought current President Ebrahim Raisi to power. But over the past several decades the Iranian system has brought to the fore conservative and liberal presidents, and governments with complicated and changing political agendas.

The protesters throughout Iran pose a major challenge to Iran’s entrenched leadership, but the survival of the government is not at stake. “We’re not seeing the regime perceive this as an imminent threat to their stability,” the US’s top spy chief, director of national intelligence Avril Haines, said recently. “We see them doing a lot in the information space to try to manage it, as we’ve seen, obviously, Iran’s efforts to influence our own politics and policymaking.” A senior Israeli intelligence analyst concurred that the government will “manage to survive these protests.”

As Iranian authorities continue to arrest journalists, especially women journalists, further battles unfold in the information space.

The online war over the Iran protests, explained

On October 18, Iranian American journalist Negar Mortazavi was scheduled to speak at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, but the in-person panel was canceled and moved online after an anonymous bomb threat. Author Reza Aslan’s event two days later in Seattle was similarly postponed due to “credible threats of disruption.” And a sophisticated scamming campaign targeting Middle East experts and journalists has been thoroughly documented by Human Rights Watch, which says the hackers are backed by the Iranian government.

An Iranian American friend recently decided to publish an article for a US magazine under a pseudonym because of the hot conflicts among the Iranian diaspora. But those fights don’t just stay on social media — “They’re going to get someone killed,” the friend told me.

There are many fault lines at play among the Iranian diaspora, and many disparate groups who have fled the country since the 1979 Islamic revolution with conflicting political interests being surfaced at this moment. There is the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, an exiled resistance group that has immense influence among US policymakers despite the US having labeled it for years as a terrorist entity, which has a major online presence. There are those who support Iran’s ousted former monarchy.

In this confusing space, it’s easy for malign actors to enter online conversations, disguise their identities, and harass others. Those antagonistic perspectives, sometimes from inauthentic accounts, then get amplified by real people among Iranian diaspora communities across the world. The result is cruel.

Experts, journalists, and nonprofits that have advocated for the Iranian nuclear deal have especially come under attack, as have those who criticize the intensive US-led sanctions that have detrimental effects to many Iranians. (President Joe Biden’s effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which had already been on hold, has been further frozen in response to the protests.)

Mortazavi has been an active voice publishing a nuanced analysis of all of the above. She hosts the popular Iran Podcast, but hasn’t produced an episode since the protests began because she has been worn down from the attacks she has received on Twitter and on Instagram. “If they can’t get us de-platformed, they want to threaten us so we self-censor,” she told me. It “counts as a good day,” she said, when she’s only called a sexual slur by online trolls but is not physically threatened. “It’s a way to make Iranians live in fear.”

In September, she was receiving more than 50,000 mentions a day on Twitter, many of them targeted harassment. There was even a concerted campaign online to say that she had made up the bomb threat at University of Chicago that cancelled her talk.

Mortazavi is among the journalists and researchers, mostly women, it might be noted, who have produced rigorous reporting on Iran are under attack. New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi “has faced months of vile threads and attacks online,” according to the paper, as well as protests outside her office, and she has since stopped tweeting. “Others targeted include activist and writer Hoda Katebi, academic Azadeh Moaveni, Human Rights Watch researcher Tara Sepehri Far and virtually anyone working for or associated with the National Iranian American Council,” the site Middle East Eye reported.

In 2020, Mortazavi and journalist Murtaza Hussain wrote in the Intercept about a US State Department–funded Iran Disinformation Project that deployed an aggressive Twitter feed to attack journalists and activists. She sees parallels from that period to what’s going on today. “My gut feeling is that some of those people are the trolls,” she told me. “I think it’s an operation.”

Marc Owen Jones, the scholar of disinformation in the Middle East, notes that about 20 to 30 percent of all tweets with the Mahsa Amini hashtag are being sent by accounts created in a 10-day period — a sign that they could be bots or bogus accounts.

Within that is plenty of commentary that is written by real people with social media accounts, but then is boosted by a lot of fake accounts. “Those fake accounts give people a sense of permissibility, that it’s okay to attack others, part of like a bandwagon approach,” Jones explained. “The scale of this operation, the motivation for it, the sustained nature of it, suggests that there is some high level of expertise going on, or an ability to circumvent Twitter’s policies.”

It’s not clear yet whether this apparently concerted effort to bully and threaten journalists like Mortzavi and others is state-sponsored, but it has some hallmarks of coordination. “There could well be all sorts of different actors messing about in here,” says digital propaganda expert Emma Briant. “It has huge consequences in the real world” — especially in shaping how people outside of Iran see the country and its protests.

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