August 15, 2023   5 mins

When the US State Department launched its Iran Disinformation Project in the autumn of 2018, it was hailed as a new weapon in the war on hostile foreign propaganda. Staffed by diaspora Iranians and handed an initial $1.5 million of public funding, the online operation was designed to neutralise Iranian “lies” about the West with “real-time counter narratives and truth-telling”. Moreover, it would achieve this by amplifying the voices and actions of “courageous Iranians who reveal the regime for the evil it truly is”. This, at least, was the grand idea.

The reality was somewhat different. In a matter of months, the fact-checking service had itself become a fountain of conspiracy theories and inflammatory smears, with staff accused of harassing domestic critics of Trump’s decision to strengthen America’s sanctions regime. Dovish American activists were denounced for “lobbying” for the Iranian regime; Georgetown University adjunct professor Ali Vaez was described as “practically a substitute spokesman” for the Iranian foreign ministry; Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist who had been imprisoned and tortured in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for 544 days, was accused of “spreading regime disinformation”. As the false accusations mounted up, targeting prominent figures at the BBC and Human Rights Watch, an embarrassed State Department finally pulled the Project’s funding in May 2019. 

More than three years later, with concerns about disinformation as feverish as ever, the project’s rise and fall remains a lesson in what can happen when Western governments pour public money into combatting it. Today, the “disinformation wars” can be split into two camps. In one corner, there are those who believe that Russian, Iranian or Chinese online propaganda is not just factually incorrect, but is a new form of dangerous untruth that must be exposed and neutralised by expert inquisitors. In the other, critics of this approach highlight how treating the media as an inquisition or battlefield runs counter to democracy. Indeed, as many journalists have discovered, Western governments often use the spectre of disinformation to monitor domestic critics and push for social-media censorship.

Both sides, however, miss an important point: disinformation is not the unique wonder-weapon of foreign despots. In other countries, Western governments and pro-West partisans are just as willing to put out dishonest and destructive propaganda.

The US military, for instance, has deployed fake social media accounts to push certain messages abroad, just as Russia does. Last year, it was revealed that the Pentagon had used them to spread unverified rumours that Iran was stealing the organs of Afghan refugees. Messages in last year’s Twitter Files also exposed how military officials have pretended to be Arab citizens defending the Saudi invasion of Yemen. For all the freedom-fighting rhetoric in public, the US government is just as willing to deploy dirty tricks in the service of friendly tyrants.

Voters, meanwhile, are largely unaware that their tax money is being used to spread falsehoods and outright slander. In 2019, a scandal erupted when Radio y Televisión Martí, a US state-run broadcaster aimed at audiences in Cuba, ran an antisemitic hit piece on the liberal billionaire George Soros, in which he was described as “a non-practising Jew of flexible morals”. It was the typical sort of conspiracy theory found in Spanish-language anticommunist media, which often traffics in dark fantasies about Left-wing “witchcraft” and the coming dictatorship of “Jews and blacks”. Several Radio y Televisión Martí reporters were fired for the Soros report, and an audit found the station rife with “bad journalism” and one-sided “propagandistic” coverage. 

The latter accusation was, of course, the point. The explicit policy of the US government — outlined in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act — is to pursue regime change in Cuba. Radio y Televisión Martí, which is run by exiled Cuban dissidents, some of whom spent long and traumatic stints in prison there, is supposed to rile up Cubans. Its mistake was to do so against the wrong target.

Similar miscalculations have flared up in the Middle East, too. In 2021, Al-Hurra, an Arabic-language satellite TV channel funded by the US government, reported that the Al-Khoe’i Foundation, a charitable organisation in London that represents a strain of Shia Islam opposed to the Iranian government’s theology, might be “spreading terrorism” on behalf of Tehran. The story was based on a paper by an obscure Israeli think-tank, filled with sloppy logical leaps, factual errors and anti-Shia paranoia. Here, the channel was playing to the crowd: fear-mongering about Iranian conspiracies is a way to win over a Sunni Arab audience that distrusts the United States but despises Iran more. In an attempt to cover itself, the US State Department, which does try to maintain good relations with Shia clergy outside of Iran, was forced to issue a separate statement affirming that “Al-Khoe’i Foundation is a well-regarded international charitable and educational organisation”.

Americans are unaware, by design, that they are funding this propaganda. A piece of post-war legislation called the Smith-Mundt Act was designed to create a firewall between American society and the government’s foreign-facing broadcasters, to avoid the appearance of Soviet-style domestic manipulation. The Smith-Mundt Act also instructs the US government to use “private agencies” for its propaganda “to the maximum extent practicable”. In practice, this means dumping a lot of money into disreputable activist groups such as the Iran Disinformation Project and its counterparts in other countries.

But empowering conspiracy theorists to promote Western causes has never been a wise tactic. Although disinformation can foment popular anger and undermine governments in the short term — goals that Western leaders may back — its powers end there. A movement run by delusional leaders and held together by fantasies cannot effect long-term change.

Consider the Chinese religious movement Falun Gong, which has endured horrific persecution by the Beijing government and has become one of its most vocal opposition factions abroad. As part of a pressure campaign, the Trump administration set aside funding for an app that Falun Gong developed for Chinese citizens to access banned media. There appeared to be little consideration that Falun Gong’s founder preached a belief in shape-shifting aliens and an opposition to interracial marriage. (Falun Gong representative Larry Liu called these beliefs “misinterpretations” and “tangential” to their doctrine in a follow-up email.) The movement’s newspaper, Epoch Times, is a firehose of misinformation about the coronavirus, child sex trafficking and other topics. It’s one thing to support Falun Gong’s right to hold dissident beliefs; it’s another to appoint it as the group responsible for breaking Chinese internet censorship. 

Undeterred, the US government has continued to invest in its massive army of undercover social media accounts around the world. It remains unclear exactly how extensive it is, though a report by the Stanford Internet Observatory last year revealed the kind of content the US government pushes clandestinely. Posters posing as “independent media” plagiarised real news outlets, then added in anti-Russian or anti-Iranian talking points. The network even included a fake journalist, whose picture was a portrait of a Puerto Rican actress photoshopped to look Central Asian.

Elsewhere, some of the pages promoted Iranian nationalism to Iranian audiences, arguing that the Islamic Republic was draining the country’s resources for the sake of foreign client rulers. Others stoked anti-Iranian nationalism in neighbouring countries, claiming Iran was depleting Iraqi water supplies and pumping the streets of Baghdad full of crystal meth.

None of this is to suggest that propaganda can or should be abolished. It has, after all, been a tool of foreign policy and war for centuries. What it does reveal, however, is that the problem of disinformation is not unique to any political system: it is not a matter of democracy vs autocracy. Western governments and politicians will propagandise, as all governments and politicians do. If disinformation really is a threat to Western society, its warrior critics could do worse than start at home.