Adapting to online propaganda in Iran

Iranian government propaganda is adapting to the digital age. A recent outpouring of videos released on Apparat (an Iranian version of Youtube) demonstrates the new role technology is playing in spreading the message of the far right within the country. While the content of the videos vary, the general message remains consistent: American foreign policy is hypocritical, and Iran has a right to maintain its military strength. The videos aim to engage a generation that is no longer drawn towards nationalistic rallies and who get most of their news online.

Amir Tataloo

The government’s pivot to video has come at a time when interest in combative nationalism has decreased. By modernizing their tactics, they are venturing into territory that has surprised even the Iranian people, who through the years have grown accustomed to outlandish propaganda.

For example, one video features Iranian rapper Amir Tataloo. Despite Tataloo’s hard-partying reputation, the Iranian government has embraced the singer for his support of Iran’s military efforts. The video for his song “Energy Hasteei” features the singer standing on a large military ship, singing, “This is our absolute right, to have an armed Persian Gulf.” As Mohammadreza Shafah, the head of the government-funded Soureh Film Club, put it, “What better way to attract the youth to our ideals than a rapper who subscribes to those?”


Still from We Will Resist

Then there are videos like “We Will Resist,” an 8-minute CGI film that reimagines the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by Americans in 1988. The video paints Iran as a utopia of people who unite to create a tidal wave that sinks the American fleet residing just offshore. It’s a hyper-stylized piece, but falls in line with the message that Iran is constantly under threat, and only unrelenting patriotism will protect its borders.

The government-funded propaganda machines of Iran are, of course, nothing new. But by branching into the digital world, they are competing on a platform that has been heavily populated by progressive groups that have been banned from state-owned television and radio. And now, with this onslaught of content from the Iranian fundamentalists, progressive activists are staying one step ahead of the Iranian government. While the government has seemingly just discovered YouTube, these activists are already moving on to create advanced iPhone and Android apps.

The app Sandoogh96 (Vote2017 in English) was released shortly before Iran’s presidential election this spring. It was created by journalist Maziar Bahari who, after working as a correspondent for Time magazine in Iran, was jailed for four months on espionage charges. Bahari now lives in London, but he continues to fight for the free flow of information in Iran.


Sandoogh96

Bahari spearheaded the development of Sandoogh96 after witnessing the uptake in detainment of opposition journalists in Iran and the resulting lapse in balanced media within the country. Especially with a presidential election looming, Bahari felt it was his responsibility to ensure the Iranian people were able to access unbiased information on the six presidential candidates.

The app has a similar swiping interface as Tinder, except instead of dates, users are swiping left or right based on policy proposals they either agree or disagree with. It aims to remove political party influence by giving the individual complete control based on their own beliefs.

“Iran is like a 20th century dictatorship working in the 21st century,” Bahari told Wired. “They know how to shut down newspapers and interfere with shortwave radio, but when it comes to digital technology they don’t know what to do.”

Videos such as “Energy Hasteei” and “We Will Resist” prove that this is already changing. As the Iranian government becomes more adept at spreading propaganda digitally, they are moving on to a platform that was before the final space to access propaganda-free information. It is therefore crucial for activists such as Bahari to keep creating new technologies in order to stay ahead of the Iranian government and provide transparency.

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