Social media spillover from Iran protests gives rise to two rival Twitter campaigns targeting U.S. policy makers
On December 28, Iranians took grievances with their government’s economic policies to the streets of the country’s second largest city, Mashhad. The protests quickly spread to much of the rest of the country, leading to almost two weeks of unrest and at least 21 dead. Protests for Iran’s future continued on social media.
While the protests appeared to be domestically focused and initiated, U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets about the events sparked two rival social media campaigns — #BanIRIB and #ShutUpTrump — which targeted American policy makers.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) is an Iranian state-run broadcaster, which controls all broadcasting in Iran as well as Press TV, an English language outlet broadcasting in the U.S. and via satellite. The U.S. imposed sanctions on IRIB in 2013, citing human rights violations, which included filming and broadcasting coerced confessions of Iranian political detainees.
The specific IRIB sanctions were never implemented, as former-U.S. President Barack Obama and, later, current U.S. President Donald Trump continuously signed presidential waivers to prevent them from coming into effect every 180 days since 2013, as part of “confidence building measures” related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (i.e. The Iran Deal), which was negotiated by the P5+1 (five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the U.S. — plus Germany and the European Union) and froze Iran’s development of nuclear material that could be used for weapons in return for terminating or suspending some United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), and American sanctions against Iran.
During the recent wave of protests, some activists accused IRIB of not covering the Iranian protests objectively. Iranians condemned IRIB for inaccurate reports about the on-going unrest and amplification of pro-government rallies. Furthermore, there have been reports that IRIB asked its viewers for information about protesters’ identities.
As a result, Iranian social media activists launched a hashtag campaign, directed at the Trump administration, to #BanIRIB.
In response to #BanIRIB and Trump’s tweets about the protests in Iran, in which he expressed support for protesters, some Iranian social media users started a hashtag campaign under #ShutUpTrump, which has since grown well outside of this specific debate.
When you open your mouth, the world must stop its nose before hearing the words#ShutupTrump
— 🇮🇷وحید یامین پور (@yaminpour) January 4, 2018
The hashtag started trending on January 4, and in the period between January 4 and January 9, generated over 250,000 mentions.
At least 56.1 percent of all mentions came from Iran, another 13.2 percent came from the United States.
The campaign involved 97,100 users, averaging 2.59 hashtag mentions per user and, as of the time of this report, generated nearly 300 million impressions.
At least 7,687 mentions tagged President Trump’s Twitter account @realDonaldTrump in an attempt to get his attention on Twitter.
The campaign was led by a handful of hyperactive influential users. A machine scan showed that the ten most active users (with an authority score of eight to ten) generated 1,454 tweets.
*Note that the authority score we referred to here is based on account’s activity and account’s influence.
Like many popular hashtags, #BanIRIB did attract some bot attention. Sysomos, a social listening tool, data shows that users with an authority score of one (out of ten) generated 29,000 mentions of the hashtag. Their reach was significantly lower, likely, due to the accounts’ low follower count.
A machine scan showed accounts with a low authority score were far more active than those with significant following.
Top ten users with an authority score of one, generated 4,854 #BanIRIB mentions, as opposed to 1,454, generated by the most active authoritative Twitter users (see above).
The list of most active users included several accounts exhibiting bot-like behavior. Of course, the accounts could be real activists, who intentionally keep their accounts anonymous for fear of reprisal and aim to aggregate the ample social media content — like photos and video — from the protests.
The number one most active user — @dadash0098 used that hashtag 1,104 times between January 5 and January 10. The account was created in August 2015, but first tweeted on January 5, 2018. Since then, the account posted 2,412 tweets, of those, 1,104 tweets used the hashtag #BanIRIB. The account provides no verifiable personal information.
The #Dictator regime killed more than 30 defenseless people in peaceful #IranProtests.
Your help to #iran peoples is the helping to Peace in all the world.#FreeReferendum4Iran #FreeInternet4iran #BanIrib@realDonaldTrump @VP @nikkihaley @FedericaMog @antonioguterres pic.twitter.com/3hTrcpM6fH
— Dadash Jan (@dadash0098) January 5, 2018
A Twitonomy scan shows that the user tweets on average 172 times a day and 97 percent of all its tweets are replies, which suggests the account is likely automated.
The second most active user, @Arash45610459 joined Twitter on December 31, 2017 and since has tweeted 1,895 times. The account used #BanIRIB 771 times.
The account has no verifiable personal information, tweets on average 171 tweets a day, 97 percent of which are tweets or replies. All are features of a bot.
@hamid_jafari97 appeared to be another partially automated account. It joined Twitter on August 4, 2017, but was activated only on January 4 and since has tweeted content exclusively related to Iran protests.
Of account’s 913 tweets, 621 mention #BanIRIB, most of them retweets, suggesting the account may be programmed to retweet mentions of #BanIRIB.
Like the two other accounts, it provides no personal information. It tweets 112 times a day on average, more than 60 percent of its activity are retweets.
The campaign started at the same time as #BanIRIB, on January 4, but generated far less engagement.
There were a total of over 30,000 mentions, generated by 8,500 users averaging at 3.6 mentions per user (compared to 2.59 mentions of #BanIRIB).
The vast majority of hashtag mentions appeared to come from Iran.
The top ten most authoritative users engaged on the hashtag generated 1,195 mentions.
Like #BanIRIB, #ShutUpTrump attracted rather little bot attention. The top ten most active users with an authority rating of 1–3 generated 1,329 mentions of the hashtag.
The most active poster, @Iraj_Shahmoradi appeared to be an automated account. It joined Twitter on December 31.
It has since tweeted 1,161 of which 515 tweets mentioned #ShutUpTrump.
The account provides no verifiable personal information. According to Twitonomy’s data, the account tweets 96 times a day on average and 90 percent of its activity are retweets. This indicates a high likelihood that the account is automated.
The low bot engagement might be explained by hashtag’s low performance in terms of impressions as bots are more likely to exploit trending hashtags.
It is unclear if either one of the campaigns had any effect on the U.S. foreign policy. On January 12, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned 14 individuals for human rights abuses and censorship in Iran, which were separate from the JCPOA waiver Trump signed on January 12. Among those sanctioned, is the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, which oversees government’s control of the internet. The President of IRIB, is a member of the council. There is no indication #BanIRIB had anything to do with Trump’s decision.
The two campaigns, however, show that Twitter activists worldwide are beginning to target U.S. decision makers on Twitter in an attempt to create policy change. Although that in itself is not problematic, the authenticity of these campaigns should be scrutinized to distinguish between genuine calls for help and bot-led interventions.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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