State-Sponsored Twitter Accounts Pushing For War With Iran

How Twitter remains complicit in allowing the U.S. Department of State to finance propaganda

Geoff Golberg
Oct 22 · 15 min read
Algorithmically determined community (modularity class) of 6.3K Twitter accounts that emerged from a larger, Iranian-focused dataset (comprising 26.2K accounts). Each dot (node) represents a Twitter account. Each line (edge) represents Following/Followers connections. Colors represent algorithmically determined communities (currently broken out into three colors/communities as graph algorithms were reapplied after filtering dataset from 26.2K accounts to 6.3K). Size of each node represents how connected accounts are relative to 6.3K dataset. Bottom left image highlights accounts that @IranDisinfo is Following (5 accounts from 6.3K dataset). Bottom right image highlights accounts that are Followers of @IranDisinfo (4.1K accounts)

Iran Disinformation Project

A few months back, the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian wrote an opinion piece titled “The State Department has been funding trolls. I’m one of their targets.”

One week prior to the publication of Jason’s piece, the State Department announced they were suspending funding to the Iran Disinformation Project. The initiative had previously been awarded a $1.5 million grant via the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) — funding that, according to the Iran Disinformation Project’s website, would be used towards bringing “to light disinformation emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran via official rhetoric, state propaganda outlets, social media manipulation and more.”

Rather than combating foreign propaganda and disinformation (GEC’s purpose), however, the Iran Disinformation Project was using their Twitter account (@IranDisinfo) to target journalists, think tank analysts, researchers, and civil society advocates — denouncing them as “mullah sympathizers,” “apologists,” “mouthpieces,” and “lobbyists.”

I was among those targeted by the Iran Disinformation Project. In other words, my tax dollars were being used to fund trolls’ attacks against me. Most disturbing has been Twitter’s refusal to remove accounts which violate their rules, even when I (and other researchers) have spoon-fed them data.

In January 2019, I tweeted a thread highlighting how #WeSupportPolandSummit was manipulated, resulting in the hashtag trending:

A couple days later, @IranDisinfo piggybacked on a tweet from Saeed Ghasseminejad (senior advisor and financial economist at FDD, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies), which attempts to discredit something that was never alleged in the first place (i.e. that I suspect his account is a bot):

Saeed’s tweet from Jan 18th, 2019

Saeed (and the FDD, by extension) play a central role in a massive information operations effort (that pushes for war with Iran), hence it isn’t surprising that he was triggered once I started sharing data highlighting how they continue to weaponize Twitter’s platform.

In addition to his work with the FDD, Saeed is also a finance lecturer at NYC’s Baruch College (where he is setting a fantastic example for Baruch students):

Farashgard

Farashgard (aka Iran Revival) is an Iranian political action network that was founded in September 2018. The founding members consist of 40 Iranian activists across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Iran.

Here are Farashgard’s founding members and their Twitter handles (which I was able to obtain for 28 of the 40):

Saeed Ghasseminejad — along with Prince Reza Pahlavi, Ramin Parham, and Payman Sadegh — are senior advisers to Farashgard. Rounding out the organization is Arash Sobhani, who operates as an associate:

Below are 6,290 accounts which comprise an anti-Iranian regime focused community (note how central the Farashgard founding members, senior advisers and associates appear):

Same 6.3K account graph/dataset (node coloring has been modified above vs. opening images)

Farashgard, along with the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (aka MEK), are viewed by many Iranians as “fake” opposition groups. According to LobeLog, they’re referred to as “the ‘fake’ opposition because [they support] the economic sanctions and the threat of military attacks, and [have] completely aligned [themselves] not only with the Trump administration, but also with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel, and [endorse] their propaganda against Iran.”

MEK and Farashgard seek to distort the public debate by utilizing fake accounts to amplify pro-war sentiment. They consistently game hashtags to trend via artificial amplification, spam journalists/politicians, and trolls like Heshmat Alavi (whose account was proven to be a persona controlled by several MEK operatives) continue to harass (real) Twitter users:

Tavaana

Tavaana is “Iran’s premier civic education and civil society capacity building initiative with a vision for a free and open society, one in which each and every Iranian enjoys equality, justice and the full spectrum of civil and political liberties.”

The project launched in 2010 via state funded grants and has been sustained with federal assistance (Google has even made “vital in-kind contributions” to Tavaana):

Source: Tavaana’s site

Here’s a thread from Nima Fatemi, an independent Iranian security researcher, that outlines Tavaana’s involvement with the Iran Disinformation Project:

Tavaana’s founder, Mariam Memarsadeghi (@memarsadeghi), has often used Twitter to target individuals/organizations who are pro-diplomacy (against war with Iran).

Here you can see her attacking Jason Rezaian, for example:

Source thread

The Iran Disinformation Project controversy spread so quickly that a week after the project’s funding was suspended by the State Department, it was being tweeted about by Ilhan Omar:

Making Sense Of It All

The vast majority of Farashgard-affiliated accounts (right image; non-blue nodes) — based on their Followers/Following interconnectivity within the context of 6.3K account dataset — have algorithmically been determined to be part of the blue community (left image)

FDD and Iran Disinformation Project

FDD’s CEO, Mark Dubowitz (@mdubowitz), was quick to distance his organization from the Iran Disinformation Project:

As a reminder, Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior advisor and financial economist at FDD. Turns out he was also on the Iran Disinformation Project’s payroll:

Moreover, FDD tweets linking to articles written by “@SGhasseminejad in @IranDisinfo” point to an “Iran Disinformation Project” section of FDD’s site (rather than to IranDisinfo.org):

Next, let’s take a look at the Following/Follower networks of both Dubowitz and Ghasseminejad (within the context of our 6.3K account dataset):

Top left image highlights accounts that @mdubowitz is Following (63 accounts from 6.3K dataset). Top right image highlights accounts that are Followers of @mdubowitz (2.3K accounts). Bottom left image highlights accounts that @SGhasseminejad is Following (158 accounts). Bottom right image highlights accounts that are Followers of @SGhasseminejad (2.8K accounts)

You can think of these graphs/maps as social fingerprinting. On the left, accounts that @mdubowitz (top) and @SGhasseminejad (bottom) are Following appear lit up and are linked to via an edge. On the right, accounts that @mdubowitz and @SGhasseminejad can count as Followers are linked to via edges.

The accounts of Dubowitz (FDD), Ghasseminejad (FDD, Iran Disinformation Project, Farashgard), and Iran Disinformation Project have algorithmically been determined (based on Following/Followers interconnectivity) to be part of the blue community:

Below I have filtered the (6.3K account) dataset to include accounts comprising the blue community (2.6K accounts) and reapplied visual clustering:

Filtered 2.6K account community (non-blue nodes are Farashgard-affiliated accounts)
Top left image highlights accounts that @mdubowitz is Following (23 accounts from 2.6K dataset). Top right image highlights accounts that are Followers of @mdubowitz (936 accounts). Bottom left image highlights accounts that @SGhasseminejad is Following (76 accounts). Bottom right image highlights accounts that are Followers of @SGhasseminejad (1.3K accounts)

Despite Dubowitz’s attempts to distance his organization from the Iran Disinformation Project, network analysis suggests that FDD (namely, Dubowitz and Ghasseminejad) actually has a close relationship with the Iran Disinformation Project.

Farashgard and Iran Disinformation Project

Highlighting the nodes of Farashgard team members (from the same, filtered 2.6K account community), it is clear that Farashgard and the Iran Disinformation Project are closely intertwined:

Right image is filtered to include the 30 most influential accounts (based on eigenvector centrality algorithm)

Below I have reapplied visual clustering and added labels — after filtering to include the 30 most influential accounts (eigenvector centrality algorithm) from the community:

12 of the 30 accounts are Farashgard-affiliated (founding members, senior advisers or associates). Also included are FDD’s CEO @mdubowitz and @Tavaana

Including the @iranfarashgard and @Group_ILSG accounts (both are blue above), nearly half of the 30 most influential accounts (14) are Farashgard-affiliated.

Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates (@Group_ILSG) is being included because the organization’s chair & co-founder, Amir Etemadi, is also a Farashgard founding member (moreover, every tweet from @amiretemadi is amplified in a coordinated fashion by inauthentic accounts that violate Twitter Rules).

Along with Etemadi, Saeed Ghasseminejad is the co-founder (and former spokesperson) of the Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates.

Tavaana and Iran Disinformation Project

Here’s a link to a Tavaana interview with Saeed Ghasseminejad from 2010:

I can state with certainty that Mr. Ghasseminejad — whose Twitter account is verified — regularly engages in activity that violates Twitter Rules.

Tavaana’s founder, Mariam Memarsadeghi (@memarsadeghi), is a long-time State Department contractor, who, over the past decade, has received hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to promote “freedom of expression and free access to information.”

Tavaana is the flagship product of E-Collaborative for Civic Education, a 501c3 organization with a “mission to leverage technology — internet communications technology, social networks, television and radio, mobile phones, e-learning classroom platforms, and more — to promote democracy and human rights internationally.”

Memarsadeghi, along with Akbar Atri, co-founded E-Collaborative for Civic Education in 2011. Atri, an Iranian exile, has participated in “numerous conferences and forums convened by neoconservative think tanks, including a 2006 Capitol Hill forum sponsored by the FDD, where [he] joined supporters of sanctions legislation sponsored by [former] Senators Joe Lieberman and Rick Santorum.”

Iranian-American journalist, Negar Mortazavi, was among those targeted by the Iran Disinformation Project. Mortazavi, who is a diplomatic correspondent with The Independent, broke the story of the State Department funding propaganda (targeting Americans) with this thread:

A couple months later, she shares that State Department officials have confirmed the Iran Disinformation Project was being run by Mariam Memarsadeghi — who appears to have contracted out the dirty work to FDD’s Saeed Ghasseminejad:

OK, So What’s Your Point?

The funding of various Iranian opposition groups by the U.S. is nothing new.

In 2002, following President Bush labeling Tehran as part of the global “axis of evil,” Congress allocated $20 million to promote democracy in Iran. In 2006, the administration “requested an additional $75 million for democracy promotion, all the while insisting that it does not want regime change in Tehran, but rather ‘change in regime behavior.’”

More than half of the $75 million was allocated for Voice of America television and Radio Farda broadcasting. According to policy analysis from The Washington Institute, the remaining funds “will be spent in Iran and abroad supporting NGOs and human rights organizations such as the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, Connecticut.”

E-Collaborative for Civic Education’s co-founder, Akbar Atri — along with FDD’s Saeed Ghasseminejad — are among the ‘exiles’ being referenced in a 2015 op-ed from USC professor, Muhammad Sahimi: “These exiles also have many websites and ‘non-profit’ organizations through which they espouse their views and those of their benefactors.”

Sahimi, describing the operational structure of E-Collaborative for Civic Education, states the organization “has a ‘faculty’ that carries out the work with contracts, which includes several Iranian exiles who have supported the sanctions, with at least one of them calling for the disintegration of Iran if the Islamic Republic cannot be toppled.”

What’s happening here, effectively, is U.S. taxpayer dollars are being used to craft a narrative that justifies U.S. policy.

These efforts have historically been limited to the more traditional channels (namely, television, print and radio). In recent years, however — as the discovery and consumption of news continues to shift towards social media — battles are increasingly being waged across digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Worth noting that Farashgard, as of September 1st, 2019, has been registered as a non-profit in Washington DC:

Coordinated Inauthentic Activity

There are thousands of anti-Iranian regime focused accounts that engage in coordinated inauthentic activity among the 6.3K account dataset.

The intention of this post is to provide a high-level overview of some of the key individuals and groups involved in a massive information operations effort — supported by State Department funding — that pushes for war with Iran.

There will be a separate post to follow that takes a deep dive into the data/network analysis.

That being said, I still would like to mention a few more things on the data front.

Auditing Twitter’s Actions

The initial 26.2K account Iranian-focused dataset consists of more than a million Following/Followers relationships and was sourced in June 2019.

Checking the account status of the 26.2K accounts a few months later (in this case, September) allows for auditing Twitter’s actions.

Relative to the 6.3K account filtered dataset (where this post started) — 13% of the accounts that existed as of June 2019, no longer existed as of September 2019.

In other words, more than 800 anti-Iranian regime focused accounts were recently suspended by Twitter or no longer exist (none of which have been disclosed by Twitter):

6.3K accounts (full dataset; top left), 5.5K accounts that still exist (top right), 776 accounts that no longer exist (bottom left), 60 accounts that have been suspended (bottom right)

I’m Not Inauthentic, I Just “Like” A Lot

Below I have highlighted a subset of connected, hyperactive liking nodes (45 accounts) from the 6.3K account dataset:

Each of these accounts has, on average, liked 100+ tweets per day since being created — while, on average, tweeting fewer than 10 times per day (every account above — with the exception of @Amirali8721 — is Following @IranDisinfo)

When accounts exhibit hyperactive liking (100+ per day), they tend to also exhibit hyperactive tweeting (100+ per day). With this dataset, however, many of the hyperactive liking accounts didn’t exhibit a similar level of activity with respect to tweeting. The 45 accounts above — in addition to liking 100+ tweets per day — have averaged fewer than 10 tweets per day since being created.

For example, meet “SHADi” (@sh_iranii_iii) — an account that has, on average, tweeted less than once per day since being created, while liking more than 285 tweets per day (for more than 6 years!):

When viewing @sh_iranii_iii’s profile, we can even utilize Twitter’s “You might like” algorithm to identify additional accounts that violate Twitter Rules:

The middle account (@mohmd_mozafari) is real (Mozafari is an Iranian and former political prisoner), while the remaining two accounts exist solely to distort the public debate.

“(Demis)” (@farashgardi) and @pdarkhande, respectively, have liked 188 and 275 tweets per day, on average, since the accounts were created. Each account similarly exhibits hyperactive activity with respect to tweeting (averaging 100+ tweets per day):

Accountability

Earlier this month, WIRED UK’s Laurie Clarke highlighted how Twitter is yet to disclose ‘state-backed’ information operations emanating from any of the Five Eyes alliance countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States).

A week prior to Clarke’s piece, Middle East Eye reported that a “senior Twitter executive with editorial responsibility for the Middle East is also a part-time officer in the British Army’s psychological warfare unit.” Gordon MacMillan, who has been with Twitter for more than 6 years, has also served with the 77th Brigade for several years.

Here’s the “What We Do” section from the 77th Brigade’s site:

MacMillan’s role at Twitter (Head of Editorial, EMEA) certainly lends itself well to “disseminating media” across Twitter’s platform (one of the bullets above).

Is MacMillan’s dual role the reason we’re yet to see Twitter disclose state-backed information operations emanating from the U.K.?

After I called attention to #WeSupportPolandSummit trending inorganically, CNN national security reporter, Kylie Atwood, asked the State Department about the hashtag. Here’s what they had to say back in February 2019:

Note: I never stated the trending hashtag was “driven in large part by bots” (rather, I tweeted a thread about the hashtag “clearly being gamed”)

Asking the State Department whether or not they believe a hashtag trended organically is absolutely ridiculous. It would be akin to a reporter asking for my input on Iranian foreign policy — an area where I lack proper knowledge to offer perspective of any value. Realizing Atwood was simply doing her job, I let her know back then that the reply from the State Department was complete bullshit.

Since that time, I have analyzed several additional hashtags that were gamed by anti-Iranian regime focused Twitter groups (for example, #IraniansWantIRIBban), establishing a deep understanding of the Iranian-focused Twittersphere in the process. Moreover, I have been in touch with hundreds of Iranian-Americans over the past year, as it is impossible to understand information operations/platform manipulation while focusing solely on data.

Reflecting on the State Department’s assertion that the hashtag (#WeSupportPolandSummit) trended organically, it all makes sense now. The State Department, by granting taxpayer dollars to individuals like Tavaana’s Mariam Memarsadeghi (among others), has effectively been financing propaganda for years.

Canada is another Five Eyes alliance country from which Twitter is yet to disclose state-backed information operations. While I am unsure of the precise origin of such efforts, I am certain that Twitter continues to be heavily weaponized by nefarious actors looking to force an anti-Trudeau, nationalist-focused agenda on Canadians.

Twitter should be mitigating against information operations broadly, independent of whether or not said efforts have been opaquely determined by Twitter to be ‘state-backed’ in nature.

Fixing The Problem

The implications of Twitter’s decision to remain complicit in allowing the U.S. Department of State to finance propaganda (that pushes for war with Iran) are far wider reaching than a single user (myself, in this case) being annoyed.

Take Heshmat Alavi, for example. As previously mentioned, the account was proven to be a persona controlled by several MEK operatives. Yet, as was surfaced by The Intercept’s investigation, the White House has actually cited Heshmat Alavi as a source to justify foreign policy decisions:

Within a few hours of The Intercept’s report being published, Twitter suspended the Twitter account of Heshmat Alavi. A week later, however, the vocal MAGA-supporting account mysteriously resurfaced and has seamlessly transitioned back into pushing propaganda:

When Twitter — who has refused to comment on the matter — quietly reinstated the (MEK-linked) @HeshmatAlavi account, John Bolton was the National Security Advisor of the United States (a position he held from April 2018 through September 2019). Coincidentally, many would credit Bolton — who has collected six figures from speaking at MEK events over the years — as being the driving force in legitimizing Maryam Rajavi, MEK’s leader, as a viable alternative to Iran’s current leadership:

Did the Trump administration strong-arm Twitter into reinstating the Heshmat Alavi account?

Similar to what I experienced from @IranDisinfo, @HeshmatAlavi has also attempted to discredit my research:

Transparency

Demanding more transparency — both from Twitter and from government — is the only way forward.

Funding of the Iran Disinformation Project represents a fraction ($1.5 million grant) of the Global Engagement Center’s (GEC’s) war chest. Since late 2016, the State Department has allocated more than $100 million to counter foreign efforts to meddle in elections.

I suspect that the Iran Disinformation Project isn’t the only initiative that has misappropriated taxpayer dollars in a similar fashion.

Given the connectivity between the Iran Disinformation Project, FDD, Farashgard and Tavaana, I am interested in identifying individuals connected to said organizations that have received federal grants or contracts (including any subgrants and subcontracts). Moreover, there should be an investigation launched immediately into how Tavaana has spent funding received via federal grants dating back to 2010.

Broadly speaking, it doesn’t appear there is sufficient oversight in place to ensure that government-funded information operations aren’t targeting their own citizens. Moreover, it appears that Twitter is actually facilitating State Department propaganda efforts (that push for war with Iran).


Geoff Golberg is an NYC-based researcher (and entrepreneur) who is fascinated by graph visualization/network analysis — more specifically, when applied to social networks and blockchain activity. His experience spans structured finance, ad tech, and digital marketing/customer acquisition, both at startups and public companies.

Geoff is the Founder/CEO/Janitor of Social Forensics, where he spends (far too much of) his time developing techniques and building tools to identify social media manipulation (of various flavors!).

Read about Geoff’s war with Twitter here!

Geoff Golberg

Written by

Founder, Social Forensics | Previously: Co-Founder, Elementus | Featured in BBC, CNN, BuzzFeed, and Quartz, among others | geoffgolberg.com

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