You’ve seen a trickle of 2020 election marketing. Soon enough the flood gates will open. If you’ve even scarcely paid attention to this column, or countless other media pieces, since the 2016 election then you know that the value of election information is, on the whole, imperfect. In 2016, more than any other faction the Russians perpetuated effective disinformation and misinformation campaigns. Ranging from the subtle to the overt, these messages seeped into the conversation and then into the voting booths. It was near osmosis. Most of us bought it. Many of us acted upon it. But, no matter your response then, it will be another part of the story this time around. So, how will you know? I’m not prideful enough to believe that I can answer that. From where will it come? That question is a little more predictable, and this week I want to stay focused on Iran especially since our military attack of one of its more celebrated generals continues to resonate in global and diplomatic circles, if not more so amongst defense circles.
Most of the cyberdefense community agreed that killing General Soleimani two weekends ago would result in heightened attention toward Iran’s relatively sophisticated cyber operations. It’s been caught defacing websites, including those owned by the U.S. government. It breaks systems through denial of service attacks, when servers become overwhelmed by the attacker’s voluminous data to the point of failure. And, it’s stolen personal, financial, and healthcare information from private and public databases. At least since 2011 Iran has been under scrutiny for its high profile attacks against American banks, power plants, Vegas casinos, universities, and the list goes on. On Sunday, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and Homeland Security’s National Terrorism Advisory System each issued security bulletins surrounding Iran’s growing cyber capabilities, and advised all U.S. organizations to “heighten awareness” of cybersecurity threats and review their security postures vis-à-vis possible retaliation for the Soleimani hit.
One very fruitful, timely, and possibly satisfactory tactic (to Iranian citizens, that is, who want recompense for Soleimani) that Iran will likely take is to try to disrupt the 2020 elections through propaganda distributed in social media and news channels. There is not enough time or resources available to Tehran to live up to Russia’s effectiveness in this vein, yet Iran’s online strategies have been growing. Historically, though not tested in an American general election, Iran’s ability to disinform has been influential. In 2015 its Quds Force, under Soleimani’s command unsurprisingly, so effectively distributed a rumor that the U.S. was actually arming ISIS forces that one of our helicopters came under fire in Iraq after other anti-Islamic State factions bought into the whole tale. Well before that incident Iran was realizing the power of information campaigns and funding the same.
Around 2010 we saw the Arab Spring unfold throughout the region, in Egypt, Tunisia, and other parts of northern Africa. At the time the Green Movement, in Iran, had already blossomed. These events had a couple similarities. The populace had had enough of their respective, presumably oppressive regimes. And, one successful strategy that the otherwise unsupported, disorganized, and unarmed public deployed in the face of their disproportionally outfitted government foes was social media. Then, Twitter had the muscle, and many other outlets, some of which are now defunct, filled in. It was a democratic uprising of information. When you think about many freedoms described in our Bill of Rights—speech, assembly, etc.—those freedom fighters had to rely on social media to attain them. In response, the Iranian government levied its own media blitz mostly from PressTV. Think, the Iranian version of the current, somewhat objective news outlet that was then known as Russia Today. PressTV correspondents, just like the former RT types, drove disinformation into its society.
Security experts know that Iran is already pumping propaganda messaging into U.S. screens of all sizes, and it will continue to expand as November nears. Russia did it well, and was nuanced. Iran’s is more too-the-point, not so subtle. Russians created fake online identities and spoke from those voices. Iran’s messaging, for example, mirrors the American conservative media such as its typically negative attention given to “the Squad,” the Congress subset of Ocasia-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib, and Omar, two of whom are of Muslim backgrounds and faith.
Iran’s disinformation breaks into two forces. First, the messaging might be obviously pro-Iranian, such as the post-Soleimani campaigns that purported to support his position, the Quds Force’s importance to Iran, and other forms of inward focus. The other manner is anti-American, or anti-West on a grander scale. It appears, thus far, to be indirect, too. In Kuwait last week, for example, one if its news agencies was hacked by Iranians and pumped with “intelligence” about America’s withdrawal from Iraq. In Latin America, Iran’s messages are growing in volume and buy-in. An Iranian-Spanish station called HispanTV is propelling the Tehran line, and surely there are millions of Hispanic American voters whose inboxes may end up bearing those nefarious reports.
In a Reuters investigation a half-million monthly readers dipped into one of 70 websites that were fed disinformation from Nile Net Online, which is actually an Iran-based propaganda machine that appears to aim its appeal to Egyptians seeking “true news.” All of these websites, go figure, also turned out to be under the control of Tehran. Fifteen countries, ours among them, have Nile Net Online consumers with the most visitors coming from Yemen and Syria. Iran knows whom to play against us. Fifty of the 70 websites use American web service companies, incidentally. This effort is small in comparison with Russia’s 2016 election shenanigans: nine million tweets from 4,000 fake accounts. Yet, with the timing of Soleimani’s killing leading into the 2020 presidential campaigning, you can rest assured that it’s only going upwards for Iran’s activities, related.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.