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US-Iran tensions, trolls and the dubious case of Heshmat Alavi

When it comes to media coverage of Iran, all is not as it seems.

Last week, American news outlet The Intercept published a piece questioning whether a well-published Iranian activist advocating regime change in the Islamic republic was an actual person.

Heshmat Alavi, whose columns appeared on the websites of American business magazine Forbes, as well as The Hill, The Federalist and The Daily Caller, on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya, and on Voice of America’s Persian website – is now under fire for being a fake.

Alavi was once cited by the White House as a credible commentator on Iran but it turns out he is a fictional persona that reportedly was created by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) – a group opposed to the Iranian government and supported by Washington.

“We’re talking about someone who they thought existed, but never bothered to verify in any way shape or form and I don’t think you would ever see that happening on any other issue. I think this is an Iran-specific thing in which the standards and the bar in the US media – particularly on the right – is essentially non-existent,” says Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council.

Alavi also occupied space on social media, with 30,000 Twitter followers. Maral Karimi, author of The Iranian Green Movement of 2009, had challenged him several times on misinformation he spread through online channels.

“Heshmat never, never responded. So naturally, I attributed that to a journalist with a gigantic ego or someone who is very busy, but now we know,” Karimi says arguing that “well-funded” news outlets like Forbes should have done a better job of verifying the fictitious character.

Then there’s the Iran Disinformation Project. The initiative is funded entirely by American taxpayers, apparently to fight back against Iranian propaganda through trolling on social media and sometimes smearing other Iranian-American commentators and journalists online.

Parsi says the goal of the project was ostensibly to fight Iranian propaganda online but, instead, the initiative focused on “attacking critics of the Trump administration’s Iran policy”.

“To make it worse, the fund that came from the State Department was actually designed to fight ISIS propaganda and Russian interference in the United States. Instead, the Trump administration diverted that money to fight critics of Trump’s Iran policy,” he adds.

Negar Mortazavi, consultant editor for The Independent, points out that any moderate and nuanced view of Iran has triggered attacks by the project.

“I had been called a ‘mouthpiece’ and a ‘lobbyist for the regime’ … other people had been called ‘apologists’ or ‘lobbyists’ for simply voicing their either criticism against President Trump’s policies or a nuanced view of what is going on inside Iran that wasn’t seen as hardline enough by the Iran Disinfo group.”

The government in Tehran is no innocent player in all this. It also tries to engineer what gets said and read online.

With ongoing tensions between Iran and the Trump administration, understanding the complexities of the debate is difficult at best.

Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch, noted that media and news organisations must be careful about publishing pieces that attempt to address what is happening inside Iran.

“For analysts, reporters, policymakers – anyone who is trying to make sense of Iran these days – if their only point of reference is what’s happening on social media, they should think twice before publishing it as ‘this is how Iranians feel about these things.’ One thing that these two seemingly unrelated stories that have come out at the same time prove is that this space is highly manipulated. And it’s far from a reflection of Iranian public opinion.”

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