On May 31, the State Department announced that it was suspending funding for a project called Iran Disinfo, which over the last few months has engaged in an online campaign against analysts, journalists, and human-rights defenders that crossed the line into personal abuse. All of the campaign’s targets had diverged, in some form or another, from the administration’s approach to Iran. I was one of dozens of people attacked by the project’s Twitter account, and it’s no coincidence that I am currently researching the impact of US sanctions on Iranians’ access to essential medicines.
The tweet dated back to April. I had asked people to get in touch with me if they had information about pharmaceutical companies’ inability to sell medicine and medical equipment to Iran as the result of the US sanctions. The account had retweeted me and added that “in the past 16 months, thousands of protesters have been arrested in #Iran and most are anonymous. @Sepehrifar of @HRW, a supporter of the so-called Moderates within the regime, instead of documenting + proving these human rights violations, is working to prove @jzarif’s claims.”
I had seen this, but I had brushed it off as just another example of Twitter’s increasingly toxic environment. Online trolls and bots had become more noticeable after the widespread protests in Iran in December 2017. Many Iran-focused analysts whom I know sensed an uptick in smears against those who either disagreed with the current US administration’s approach to Iran or were working on research that did not align with the White House narrative. Something about these attacks did not seem authentic, but many of us assumed that the slander had increased as a result of coordinated online campaigns by anti-government opposition groups outside Iran.
These anonymous attacks have been vicious and personal, such as calling one analyst a “whore.” In another example, photos of a journalist in a swimming suit appeared on social media accusing him of enjoying a Western lifestyle while advocating for a repressive government. And they have taken a toll on the Iranian diaspora activist community—particularly on women, who already get more than their fair share of gender-based harassment. I am personally aware of two people who sought therapy after being subjected to such attacks. In most cases, the attacks did not question the substance of the person’s arguments—a public debate on this critical issue should surely be welcomed—but rather they portrayed the person as an informal lobbyist or sympathizer of the Iranian government.
In a strange twist, the subject of the attacks have included many prominent victims of the Islamic Republic’s persecution of activists and journalists in Iran, including Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s former correspondent in Tehran, who spent over a year and a half in an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–controlled detention ward for his work.
At first it seemed like the kind of struggle that researchers who reveal rights abuses often experience, but Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist, took a closer look at a newly created Twitter account that was attacking journalists, university professors, and policy analysts. The reporter realized that the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs was funding the project. It appears that money that was allocated to support the diplomatic efforts of US allies in the fight against ISIS and global terrorism had been shifted to projects to counter Iranian policies and propaganda.
The money had been dispersed to an organization hurling abuse at journalists at the BBC Persian and US-funded Radio Farda, to me at Human Rights Watch, and to the Iranian analyst at the International Crisis Group. Other journalists have pointed out the connection between this project and at least one other State Department–funded project. There are other Twitter accounts that may be part of the same trend, but the scope and level of coordination is unclear.
The people targeted by these online allegations are not new to harassment. Many of us have been persecuted and imprisoned in Iran; some of us fled the country, and still can’t visit our families back home. In the case of many, like BBC Persian journalists, authorities in Iran are harassing their families. Back in Iran, some of them are also victims of state-sponsored defamation campaigns in “documentaries” broadcast by the Islamic Republic State TV channels.
I was in solitary confinement in Evin prison in 2010 in Tehran when I decided that I would leave Iran after being released. I was in my early 20s and wanted to become a professional human-rights advocate. Never did I think that nine years later, an American administration that has claimed to stand in solidarity with the people of Iran would fund attacks against me.
Human Rights Watch researchers are frequent targets. As I write, in the Middle East alone, one of my colleagues was recently threatened by Egyptian pro-government media for his research into military abuses in Sinai, while another is facing deportation from Israel for his human-rights work. For the State Department to fund an organization that employs a similar approach to autocratic governments like Egypt and elsewhere is a dangerous path for the United States to go down.
Although the State Department has frozen these funds, greater transparency into how and why it supported and oversaw an initiative apparently geared to defaming experts and analysts, people promoting human rights and the rule of law, including American citizens, is essential. It should also be a warning that the lack of transparency in how this program came about can lead to more abuses.
Maybe this project is an exception, or maybe it’s part of a broader pattern of harassment funded in whole or in part by the US government against journalists and analysts. The staff from the Global Engagement Center briefed members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee behind closed doors on June 10, but this should not end there. State Department authorities need to investigate the scope of the funding that they have allocated for combating disinformation from Iran. As a human-rights researcher, navigating the treacherous geopolitical terrain of US-Iran relations has never been easy —rights abuses connected to Iran are always at risk of being used as pretexts for political ends. But finding that my own tax dollars have been used to smear me and dozens of other journalists has left me perplexed and angry. Fighting disinformation should not be an excuse to silence people who disagree with government policies, and we should all be concerned where this could lead us in the future.