Rights activists around the world who use social media are frequently on the receiving end of propaganda campaigns, designed in most cases by repressive governments to spread misinformation, divert attention, and undermine support. I serve as a media advisor to one of the biggest such campaigns in Iran, and our painful experience illuminates the harsh challenges.
Navigating the social media giants to correct fake news or wrongful information is frustrating and time-consuming. Often you only reach a human after negotiating layers of AI and bots specifically designed to inhibit such access. The sites prefer to rely on algorithms and technology.
Meanwhile, authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes are adept at exploiting social media’s weaknesses. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most prolific promoters of shadowy groups and an expert at creating fake sites. Some of these groups are controlled by the country’s intelligence services and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
My Stealthy Freedom (MSF), the group I advise, is an Iranian women’s rights campaign against compulsory hijab laws. It is a thorn in the side of the Islamic Republic and has been the victim of sustained cyberattacks, hoaxes, misinformation and abuse for the past four years. The campaign relies on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to reach its target audience. But we face different challenges with each social media outlet.
MSF was created in May 2014 by journalist and campaigner Masih Alinejad. Since the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab laws have required women to always cover their hair. MSF calls on women to show their opposition to those laws by sending or posting photographs of themselves in public without a headscarf. Many Iranians think that whether or not you wear a hijab should be a personal choice.
The campaign, which started on Facebook, has become the biggest civil disobedience campaign in the Islamic Republic’s history. Within two weeks it had 200,000 followers. A month later it had attracted half a million, amid global media coverage. But nobody inside Facebook knew anything about it.
Almost immediately, the Islamic Republic hit back. Within days of the campaign’s launch, a Facebook page affiliated with the government published a post which said Masih Alinejad had been raped in London after disrobing in public. It was “fake news,” meant to shame Alinejad and warn other women against joining her campaign.
But it was not easy to figure out how to complain to Facebook about this violation of its rules. Eventually, we sent an email to Facebook support, asking for the post to be taken down and for action be taken against the page’s account holder. Facebook dismissed the complaint, arguing that it was a freedom of speech issue.
Soon fake pages also emerged that pretended to be MSF. As the popularity of the MSF Facebook page grew, so did the number of copycat pages created by supporters of the regime. Some mixed in pornographic photographs; others copied all the photos from the authentic page in order to siphon off members and induce people to upload photos to those pages instead.
When we complained, Facebook again argued against deleting the copycat and fake accounts. We tried to explain that the fake accounts posed a security risk to women who sent them their photographs, thinking it was the real page. The operators of those pages—the government or its allies—could track down women and arrest them. (The identity of posters on the real page is carefully protected.) Facebook employees took action only when we argued that copycat pages were violating our copyright.
Finally, following repeated requests, Facebook decided to award MSF its blue tick of authenticity, indicating the site had been validated by the company. That took care of the copycats. And to deal with the now-daily cyberattacks and spam campaigns against the page, Facebook assigned a dedicated moderator and contact person.
We also had to deal with several Facebook pages created with the express aim of identifying the protesting women, threatening them with arrest, and worse. Some even encouraged acid attacks against them. Still, the campaign continued to grow. Its real strength was women inside Iran who were not scared of these tactics. Every morning, an activist would search Facebook for fake accounts, report them, and ensure they were deleted.
Ironically, unbeknownst to Alinejad and other activists, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg had become a big fan. At a conference in November 2014, Sandberg became emotional when she described what she said was her favorite Facebook page. “It shows Iranian women risking severe punishment by daring to take off their head scarfs out of doors’’ she said. “What I love about Facebook is that we give people a voice.” As a result, Alinejad and Sandberg eventually met and it became a lot easier to flag Facebook engineers about our problems.
But the Islamic Republic’s operatives are a creative bunch. One new tactic was to bombard a post with thousands of spam comments from stolen identities. It was bizarre reading the same comment, often in Persian, over and over from accounts in Colombia, Argentina, China, and Singapore. It took Facebook engineers months to stop such attacks.
By mid-2016, MSF’s Instagram account began to take off after both Facebook and Twitter were blocked inside Iran. Once again, Alinejad faced spam attacks and misinformation campaigns from pages devoted to the fake rape story. Some of our Instagram videos have received as many 12 million views and more than 10,000 comments. Monitoring all of them became difficult. Luckily Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, also provided dedicated engineers to respond to issues relatively quickly. In fact, on a recent Iranian television show, a government hacker complained that it was too difficult to break into MSF Instagram pages.
Other social media sites have been far less helpful. On Twitter, it is challenging to push back against misinformation. There is an arrogance about Twitter—it is almost impossible to reach a real human to resolve issues. And for the past few months, the campaign’s posts have often not been visible to supporters. Frequently when MSF posts a tweet, a message reads: “This tweet is not available because it includes potentially sensitive content.” My suspicion is that Islamic Republic operatives found a way to game Twitter’s automated systems to block our messages.
But the women of MSF will not be deterred—and understand the power of social media too. Last April, four female university students celebrating their graduations were attacked by Iranian morality police operatives. One of the students filmed the attack on her mobile phone and sent it to the campaign. After Alinejad posted it on YouTube, the video received more than 5 million views. That forced three Iranian ministers to issue an apology. The video was reposted by multiple news organization around the world.
Soon, YouTube removed the video and issued an email warning to Alinejad that she had violated the site’s rules. We desperately tried to reach out to the company, but it was impossible to reach a human. So, we created the hashtag “#AyatollahYoutube” on Twitter. We contacted other activists and #AyatollahYoutube became a trending hashtag. Within hours, YouTube unblocked the video.
Kambiz Foroohar is a longtime journalist and a media adviser for the My Stealthy Freedom campaign.