Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul to support Iranian women on Sunday.

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Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  — 

As anti-government protests enter their third week in Iran, the Islamic Republic has imposed a near total blackout of independent information coming out of the country.

A fierce battle to control the narrative is now being fought online, where supporters and opponents of the government alike are taking to social media to tell their version of the truth and, in some cases, go beyond the truth.

With access to Twitter blocked in Iran, that battle is primarily being fought outside the country.

“It is normal for people to rush to social media when protests break out… It has happened in Iran and the Arab world,” said Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University who specializes in digital disinformation. “But the scale here seems quite substantial.”

Protests aren’t new to Iran, and neither are internet blackouts. What’s changing, say experts, is the sophistication of those trying to get their message across.

The protests started following the death of 22- year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police,” sparking outrage among Iranians who took to the streets to demand more freedoms.

A hashtag with her name has garnered 52 million tweets, said Jones, who has analyzed pro- and anti-regime activity on Twitter. Some of those tweets, he said, suggest there may be coordinated manipulation campaigns at play, possibly including bots.

Bots are social media accounts controlled by software, not real people, that are designed to promote certain topics.

He told CNN that an analysis of those tweeting the hashtags associated with the protests showed “a striking number of new accounts created” since the protests started.

Of the 108,000 accounts in a sample using #OpIran, another hashtag associated with the protests, he found that around 13,000 were created in September, while the average number of accounts created per month in the sample was only 500. Most of the September accounts were created in around 10 days following Amini’s death, he said.

“It’s quite rare to see this amount of new online mobilization of accounts that then subsequent and continuously engage in tweet activity,” he said, adding that while this indicates manipulation, it isn’t conclusive evidence of it.

Asked to comment on the matter, Twitter referred CNN to its policy of “taking robust and proactive action against violating content” where evidence of coordinated inauthentic activity is detected.

The creation of new accounts “is a repeated hallmark of dis- and misinformation actors… [who] participate in the conversation to push a narrative,” said Steph Shample, a non-resident scholar with the Middle East Institute’s Cyber Program. Content from such accounts is not trustworthy, she said.

Maziar Bahari, editor of IranWire, a pro-reform activist outlet, says there are many ways to verify content on social media, “but in a chaotic, angry situation it’s impossible to expect every member of the public to try and fact check, especially if those exaggerated reports have roots in the reality.”

Bahari said there have been several cases of fake news successfully being portrayed as reality from both sides. “After every protest, the government shows confiscated firearms from archives or taken from common criminals and attributes it to their critics,” he told CNN. There are also cases of social media users exaggerating reports of killings and sexual violence by the security forces, he said.

The harm comes “more when important public figures, such as politicians or educators, retweet the false narratives of controlling countries and their politicians,” said Shample.

Any account on any social media platform that is successfully posting pro-Iranian government material while most of the country is cut off from those services is suspect, she said. “It is very, very dangerous to take things at face value anymore.”

So, who’s behind all the Twitter activity around #MahsaAmini?

Since Twitter is blocked in Iran, Jones suggests that the large Iranian diaspora may be mobilizing to keep her story alive, but other interests may also be at play.

“We also know there are a number of people with stakes in trying to see regime change in Iran, from right-wing hawks in US and Israel, to the MeK,” he said, referring to Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an Albania-based Iranian dissident group. “The MeK certainly have been active in social media manipulation prior to the [death of] Mahsa Amini.”

Shample suggests that the government itself could be behind some of the anti-regime tweets in an effort to track those who support the movement.

The war of narratives between opposing parties on social media isn’t new. Twitter regularly removes accounts it says are tied to the Iranian government that engage in coordinated manipulation. Last year, Facebook removed hundreds of fake accounts linked to a troll farm in Albania that it said were linked to the MeK. The group was removed from the US terror list in 2012.

Facebook describes troll farms as a “physical location where a collective of operators share computers and phones to jointly manage a pool of fake accounts as part of an influence operation.”

Neither the MeK, which also goes by the name People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or the Iranian foreign ministry respondedto CNN’s requests for comment.

The Iranian government has time and again blamed foreign conspiracies aimed at spreading false news about the situation in Iran. But Bahari says the disinformation and foreign exploitation of the protests don’t discredit a movement that has genuine demands for change.

“Disinformation has existed as long as movements have existed,” he said. “But the advent of social media means that [it] can spread more quickly… when movements are popular and have roots in people’s aspirations for change, disinformation is just a nuisance.”

The digest

OPEC+ agrees on a 2 million bpd cut in oil output, defying US pressure

OPEC+ on Wednesday agreed on a 2 million barrel per day output cut, defying a pressure campaign by the US for the cartel not to make such a drastic reduction. The cut was the biggest since the Covid-19 pandemic and was twice as much as analysts had expected.

  • Background: The Biden administration had launched a pressure campaign this week in a last-ditch effort to dissuade Arab allies from slashing oil production. Officials had been lobbying their counterparts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to vote against such a move. Some of the draft talking points framed the prospect of a production cut as a “hostile act.”
  • Why it matters: A cut in oil production would cause US gasoline prices to rise at a precarious time for the Biden administration, just five weeks before the midterm elections. Requests for a production rise by the US earlier this year were largely rebuffed by Arab oil producers.

Saudi prince has immunity in Khashoggi killing lawsuit, say lawyers

Lawyers for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is facing a US lawsuit over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, told a court on Monday the crown prince’s appointment as prime minister last week ensured him immunity from prosecution, Reuters reported.

  • Background: Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in an operation US intelligence believe was ordered by MBS. The crown prince denied ordering Khashoggi’s killing but acknowledged later it took place “under my watch.” The lawsuit was filed jointly by Khashoggi’s fiancé Hatice Cengiz and a human rights group founded by Khashoggi.
  • Why it matters: The court had asked the US Department of Justice to express a view on whether MBS had immunity, setting an Oct. 3 deadline for a response. After the prince’s appointment as prime minister last week, the department said on Friday it was seeking a 45-day extension to prepare its response to the court “in light of these changed circumstances.”

Iranian American, 85, held in Tehran for six years, leaves Iran

Baquer Namazi, an 85-year-old Iranian American who was jailed in Iran on spying charges, arrived in Muscat on Wednesday after Tehran allowed him to leave for medical treatment, an Omani government said on Twitter.

  • Background: Namazi, a former official with the UN children’s agency UNICEF, holds US and Iranian citizenship and was one of four Iranian Americans, including his son Siamak, detained in Iran in recent years or barred from leaving the country. Namazi was convicted in 2016 of “collaboration with a hostile government” and jailed for 10 years. Iranian authorities released him on medical grounds in 2018 and closed his case in 2020, commuting his sentence to time served. However, they had effectively barred him from leaving until Saturday.
  • Why it matters: Iranian Americans, whose US citizenship is not recognized by Tehran, are often pawns between the two nations, now at odds over whether to revive a fraying 2015 pact under which Iran limited its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. Iran is also grappling with the biggest show of opposition to its clerical authorities since 2019.

Around the region

Egypt’s own Michael Jackson is making waves on social media. But this inadvertent pop star calls himself ‘Wegz of the poor,’ referring to an Egyptian rapper.

A young Egyptian man from a modest family has shot to fame in the Arab world after unexpectedly reviving Michael Jackson’s legacy 13 years after the popstar’s death. His quirky Cairene touch had the video go viral across the region.

In a short TikTok clip, Cairo resident Haytham Ahmed was seen imitating Michael Jackson’s performance in “Smooth Criminal,” mirroring his dance moves with hand gestures and an upbeat singing tune. Ahmed was filmed on the roof of what is reportedly a building in Cairo’s Sheraton district.

Ahmed said in a TV interview that the video was filmed spontaneously early in the morning by his friend.

Ahmed’s lyrics are barely comprehensible to English or Arabic speakers. Despite that, his passionate mimicking of Jackson proved popular.

Hend Sabry, a renowned Egyptian actress, imitated Ahmed’s performance on her own Tiktok account, which got around 1.5 million views.

Photo of the day

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and children perform the "Tashlich" ritual, during which "sins are cast into the water to the fish," ahead of the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur -- the most important day in the Jewish calendar -- in the coastal Mediterranean Israeli city of Netanya on Monday.