Your tax dollars at work: Journalists, activists disturbed by State Dept's anti-Iran troll campaign
Victims of anti-Iran trolling campaign were shocked to learn it was taxpayer- funded by the State Department, but not so shocked to see the government attempting to cover it up or mainstream media giving it little coverage.
Journalists, human rights activists, academics, and even outspoken critics of the Iranian government were all targeted by @IranDisinfo, which smeared any and all critics of President Donald Trump’s hawkish Iran policy as paid operatives of the regime in social media assaults that some say veered into personal attacks. Now, they want answers as to how this $1.5 million operation – bristling with the hallmarks of a totalitarian propaganda campaign – was allowed to see daylight.
“How can individuals who are not willing to adhere to the norms of American civil society be entrusted with resources to promote civil society in other countries?” asked Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post columnist who was on the troll’s hit list – despite spending time in an Iranian jail.
In a Twilight Zone-level twist, the troll even went after the NATO-backed think tank Atlantic Council’s Iran expert and a former Voice of America host.
The State Department quietly “suspended” @IranDisinfo last month, admitting the operation had gone rogue in a closed-door congressional hearing, but an apology to those targeted, and answers on who was responsible, has not been forthcoming.
Former State Department employee Joel Rubin has pointed out @IranDisinfo was run under a “cooperative agreement” which means the government had “hands-on engagement” with the months-long smear campaign, contrary to its protestations that the project went off the rails only recently.
This funding was provided by the State Department through a “cooperative agreement,” which means that State Dept. officials had hands-on engagement with the grantee on the execution of this project.
What exact guidance & feedback did they provide? pic.twitter.com/BlggfW9JPc
— Joel Rubin (@JoelMartinRubin) May 31, 2019
“What other @StateDept funded organizations claiming to promote democracy in #Iran are using taxpayer money to harass, intimidate, threaten and slander American journalists & academics? Follow the money folks,” tweeted Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal columnist and @IranDisinfo target.
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Money funding @IranDisinfo had been earmarked to counteract ISIS propaganda, as well as Russian and Chinese information ops, through the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, former White House official Brett Bruen told BBC Persia journalist Negar Mortazevi, a former VOA host and another victim of the troll.
E-Collaborative for Civic Education, which was contracted to run @IranDisinfo, appears to be connected with pro-war think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), whose website boasted a page titled “Iran Disinfo” that was a carbon copy of the troll account, as well as other pro-regime-change organizations through its founder, Mariam Memarsadeghi.
Here’s the head of @Tavaana, @memarsadeghi overtly expressing on her bio that she’s connected with this infamous group. She has a long history of attacking and discrediting Iranian diaspora who aren’t pro overthrowing at any cost. pic.twitter.com/xjoc6ZMIUU
— Nima Fatemi (@mrphs) May 31, 2019
“Never did I think that nine years [after imprisonment in Iran], an American administration that has claimed to stand in solidarity with the people of Iran would fund attacks against me,” Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch wrote in the Nation, demanding greater transparency and speculating about a “broader pattern of harassment funded in whole or in part by the US government against journalists and analysts.”
Mainstream media has been mostly silent on the issue, aside from those – like WaPo’s Rezaian – directly affected by the trolling. Even though BBC Persia journalists were among @IranDisinfo’s victims, the outlet hosted anti-regime activist Alireza Kiani, who dutifully defended the abusive propaganda as “quite beneficial with respect to the circumstances of the Iranian people,” insisting “Iran Disinfo attacked people’s political positions, not their person.”
CNN did limply condemn the operation a few weeks after it was exposed.
“There’s no moral equivalence between Iran and the US,” CNN assured its viewers, “but that clear line threatens to become a bit blurry when the US funds disinformation campaigns that attack people who don’t parrot the party line. That’s a tactic of authoritarian regimes, not democracies.”
We may not have heard the last of @IranDisinfo, either – its funding was only suspended “until [ECCE] takes necessary steps to ensure that any future activity remains within the agreed scope of work.“
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