By: Jabbar Fazeli, MD
Before the proponents of the regime accuse me of "name calling" I would like to say that the phrase "Cyber Basij" is a paraphrase derived straight from the Iranian government officials' statements such as the one made by Gen. Fazli (no relation) in 2011.
Brig General Ali Fazli, deputy commander of Iran’s Basij Forces, said in an interview on March 13, 2011 with "Mehr News" that Basij hackers were behind cyber attacks against “Enemies of the Islamic Revolution.” He added, “The approach of Basij is to fight soft wars…[and] organize a "cyber army" of tens of millions (4).
Iran's pseudo-government, the military of the Islamic Republic (the IRGC and the Basij), has set up a "Cyber Defense Command" that directs a complex propaganda operation coupled with media censorship and "cyber police" crackdown.
Below is the breakdown of the various elements of the regime's disinformation machinery:
- Jamming of foreign satellite news broadcasts during peak news events in Iran.
The BBC-Persian has been complaining about this for years and there has been a lot of discussion, even inside the Iranian government, about the health side effects of using jamming waves in populated areas (9,10).
- Using "media courts" to dissuade print media from publishing unflattering political, economic, and social news. I'm not including any links on this item as the examples of newspaper closures and journalist arrests are too numerous to cite.
- Internet censorship and blocking of social networks like Facebook and twitter, foreign based news outlets, as well as the blocking of websites critical of the regime (This blog site is proud to be one of the blocked sites in Iran since ~October of 2012).
It is note worthy that the IRGC is now the majority shareholder of Iran's telecommunication monopoly, and in effect has near total ability to monitor and control cell phones, SMS, and the Internet (13).
- Creating a "Cyber Police" unit, know as FATA (11), charged with arresting cyber activists who test the regime's unwritten slogan of "You are free to say and write whatever you like and we are free to arrest you".
There are reports that the IRGC has a dedicated wing, Ward 2-A, in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran to house those arrested for subversive cyber activity (5). There is at least one documented unlawful death of a blogger in this cyber police prison ward (6); The IRI judiciary has not rushed to "hang" anyone for that particular crime.
-The IRGC "media war" operation extends to directing the propaganda message through cinema and State TV to "shape" public opinion (12).
Kill the messenger tactic:
The "Cyber Basij" has recently embarked on a Comprehensive efforts to discredit and silence exiled journalists. These efforts have included:
- Applying pressure on the families of exiled journalists to encourage self censorship.
- Publishing False media reports and character assassination of journalists. The BBC-Persian journalists were recently the subject of a fabricated report by the temple of truth, "Fars news", claiming that the BBC reporters engage in partner sex swaps (2). To give the report credibility these stories were then made subject of pro-government blog analysis (3). The blog analysis was actually quite sophisticated; In this instance the gist of the blog piece was that the Iranian media is failing to counter the "western propaganda" despite the BBC-Persian journalists' "sex scandals", so technically the blog was "critical" of the government media while spreading the regime lies about the BBC-Persian journalists.
- Creating mirror website of major news media such as www.persianbbc.ir (www.BBCpersian.ir was an earlier version which is now suspended), and http://www.radiodirooz.com, and creating fake blog sites and Facebook pages impersonating foreign based Iranian journalists targeted for character assassination (2). The "Cyber Basij" uses these site to post fake quotes and reports then uses the quotes in mainstream Iranian media. Most of these fake sites have since been suspended by the servers.
|This is the Fake (Iranian) Cyber basij BBC site with today's regime friendly titles|
|The authentic BBC-Persian website with no regime friendly titles|
Use of "Cyber Basij" commentators to spin the news and defend the Iranian regime:
It appears that the IR has deployed a wide array of commentators who make appearances on news and blog sites. They mirror the BBC-Persian service callers who use the "viewer participation" component of the BBC programs to make the argument for the regime and try to spin the news as best they can as "individuals" with a different view.
Judging by our own experience with the "Cyber Basij" commentators they can be divided into the following categories:
- The lowest tier commentators tend to repeat copy-pasted slogans and stick to a core message regardless of the subject matter. This category is characterized by the inability, or unwillingness, to follow the points in the conversation, and are experts at changing every subject into "Zionist" or "imperialist" something. The supposed country of origin and style can vary, but most of us have learned to spot these characters for who they are, low paid regime agents.
- The second tier commentators are those who actually do make a cohesive pro-regime point despite the characteristic spin and going off topic. Some would on occasion try to offer a critique of the regime while at the same time defending the regime's core message and attacking its critiques.
They sometimes use words like "mullahs" or nationalistic language to disguise their pro-regime message. On occasion they would adhere to a consistent anti-government line on a couple of unimportant issues to give themselves some credibility.
-The third tier commentators appear to be "mercenaries" who are notable for their better English and their "role playing" as they pretend to be western or impartial as they indirectly argue the regime's message, or try to discredit anti-regime bloggers and commentators without actually having any valid reasons. These commentators are skillful at rearranging "facts" in favor of the IR. They also tend to get angry and desperate when they are unable to get away with it, I assume it is because their compensation is linked to their performance.
One thing that all tiers of "Cyber Basij" commentators have in common is that their comments are rarely short or to the point, and they love turning the discussion into a tangent discussion about the west or the writers. The rule of the thumb is to not fall for the tangent off topic discussions and not take their personal attacks personally, after-all they're only doing their job.
We should not be dismissive of the fact that there are some out there who do have a legitimate pro-regime view of the world. Most such commentators don't tend to fight to the death defending the regime's core message or embark on coordinated personal attacks, or write lengthy slogan filled comments.
I can't help but have some respect for the true believers of the Islamic Republic, especially those using their real names and sticking their necks out defending an unpopular regime.
To the true "Cyber Basij" I say hats off and keep up the good work, Joseph Goebbels (1) has nothing on you!
Headline Photo source: radiodirooz.com, radiofarda.com, FATA, radio.cz