Iran's growing cyber influence operations must be confronted
By Eitan Fischberger
On June 30, 2023, Israeli media announced that Iranian elements were likely behind a network of social media bots aiming to intensify divisions within the country over a series of judicial reforms proposed by its current government. According to the FakeReporter watchdog, which monitors foreign influence, the network was responsible for over 60,000 divisive posts on Twitter, Telegram, and other platforms in less than 36 hours. It even managed to fool Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, among thousands of others.
Relatedly, in May 2023, Microsoft revealed a dramatic upswing in the number of Iranian cyber-influence operations targeting Israel and the United States to undermine their interests while helping Tehran in the international arena.
The increase in foreign influence operations is fueled, in large part, by the hyper-polarized domestic political climate in both countries, which is still ongoing.
Therefore, the two allies must bolster their defense-against-influence strategies to mitigate the risk of malign Iranian influence penetrating their countries and the damage it can cause.
Iranian Botnets Targeting the US and Israel
According to a May 2023 report published by Microsoft, Iranian elements "have combined offensive cyber operations with multi-pronged influence operations to fuel geopolitical change in alignment with the regime's objectives." Large-scale operations included advocating for Palestinian terrorism, fomenting Shi'ite unrest in Bahrain, sowing panic about terror among Israelis, and countering the normalization of Arab-Israeli ties.
The report explains that the operations mainly targeted the United States and Israel, and that it saw a decrease in classic cyberattacks – the kind that usually attacks a state's banking system or other critical infrastructure – and an increase in more innovative social media influence campaigns using bots and trolls.
Iran's influence operations, as noted by the Atlantic Council in a 2020 report, tend not to spread overt disinformation but rather distort the truth and paint a misleading picture of Iranian moral authority while demonizing its adversaries and engaging in psychological warfare.
Other concrete examples of Iranian influence campaigns were detailed in a June 2021 TIME Magazine exclusive, which broke the news about Iranian Twitter accounts attempting to radicalize susceptible Americans by disseminating antisemitic messages during an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021. The Iranian trolls tweeted "Hitler was right" and "kill all Jews" roughly 175 times per minute, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute.
The TIME article also revealed that the troll farms dealt with President Biden's effort to revive the defunct Iran Nuclear Deal, the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and orchestrated efforts to intimidate Democratic voters before the 2020 Presidential election by posing as violent pro-Trump activists.
The increasingly brazen nature of Iran's influence operations, in part, led the United States to launch the Foreign Malign Influence Center (FMIC), a new division within the office of the Director of National Intelligence, in September 2022. According to its mission statement, the FMIC aims to "counter enduring threats to democracy and U.S. national interests from foreign malign influence actors by integrating analysis, managing the intelligence mission, nurturing partnerships, and providing indications and warning of foreign malign influence."
As it stands, the American intelligence community has focused primarily on foreign influence emanating from Russia and China, whose efforts generally take the form of explicit disinformation and direct election interference. As such, the FMIC can carve a unique niche among other agencies by devoting considerable time and resources to thwarting influence operations by under-scrutinized actors, especially Iran.
Foreign Influence Via "Independent" News Outlets
While botnets are among the most common influence strategies, other, more overt types exist. One highly effective method involves governments establishing state-sponsored propaganda outfits that masquerade as legitimate media companies and disseminate messages to a targeted country's local population in its native language, seeking to shape their opinions and behaviors. This strategy is ingenious because these "news outlets" hide in plain sight, unlike botnets and more covert influence operations.
Perhaps the most successful example of this strategy is the Qatari regime's Al Jazeera Media Network, especially its Washington D.C.-based subsidiary, AJ+. Another prominent example is Iran's PressTV.
In AJ+'s case, the outlet publishes highly inflammatory and polarizing content meant to fray the American social fabric and ultimately cripple it from the inside, including statements that "the [US] constitution sucks" and calls to abolish the American police force. It likewise promotes the BDS movement targeting Israel, slanders it as an "apartheid state," whitewashes Palestinian terrorism, and has even dabbled in Holocaust denial – all of which is neatly packaged for a young and impressionable American audience.
PressTV promotes similarly anti-American content and antisemitic conspiracies about Jews controlling world events, parrots the Iranian government's incitement against Israel, and calls to "dismantle the Zionist movement all over the world."
Although PressTV's English domain was seized by the FBI and its Facebook page shut down in 2021, its website is still accessible to people outside the United States, and it still posts antisemitic, anti-Israel, and anti-American content on its other social media pages daily, including on the popular French version of the channel.
Clearly, the regimes behind these outlets understand that they can undermine and weaken these states for a relatively low price by delegitimizing them on the world stage.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Given these emerging and increasingly effective influence strategies, the Israeli government should convene a committee of experts and practitioners to develop a comprehensive defense-against-influence strategy to mitigate their impact on its citizens.
Education should be a core component of such a strategy. Identifying influence operations is like a muscle that needs to be trained and strengthened. Therefore, the government should create a publicly accessible online platform with carefully tailored curricula to increase the Israeli public's digital literacy, where they can learn about the existence of malign foreign influence and ways to identify it.
Moreover, since Israel and the United States are the primary targets of Iranian influence operations, the two allies should work together by sharing knowledge and alerting one another of influence campaigns that target one another. This cooperation can be done through a framework consisting of the proposed Israeli committee and the FMIC.
The United States and Israeli governments must understand that while election interference and disinformation are threats that need confronting, other under-scrutinized influence strategies must also be addressed. The American and Israeli people must not be exploited as pawns in covert political warfare.
Eitan Fischberger is an international relations and Middle East analyst based in Israel. His work has been published in National Review, NBC News THINK, National Interest, and more.