The killing of Qasem Soleimani unleashed immediate fears of war — even of World War III — but if no further shots are fired, Thursday’s airstrikes in Baghdad will nonetheless generate momentous consequences. The big picture: Iran has lost its best military strategist, and America has eliminated a man it saw as a singularly destructive actor in the region. But the current U.S. concerns aren’t limited to where and when Iran will strike back.
America “needs to be prepared for retaliation in the hard cyber space and soft information space” after killing Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, says a top expert at the Atlantic Council.
The big picture: Iran has spent years building an online influence apparatus to help further its foreign policy objectives. These sophisticated campaigns are often built to effectively mimic real news and disappear quickly.
- The “Endless Mayfly” propaganda campaign, which was uncovered last year by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, began in 2016.
- The Iran-aligned network of fake or spoofed websites and online personas amplified narratives critical of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel.
- It used fake articles on websites that were designed to look like real news outlets, like Bloomberg and The Guardian.
Yes, but: Experts warn that in time of increased escalation and tension, real, organic media posts expressing outrage can be easy to confuse with fake ones.
- “Pro-Iran users certainly look like they’re picking up on a common set of messaging – for example, there are a lot of references to US soldiers coming home in coffins,” says Nimmo. “Some of the memes are taken from stock online sources, but some appear to be linked with more organised pro-regime groups, which suggests some sort of attempt to shape and drive the traffic, if not direct coordination.”
What’s next: The Lab is looking at the coverage of the topic by state-backed media and messaging laundromats like the International Union of Virtual Media, an Iranian internet disinformation group, says the Lab’s Kanishk Karan.
- Karan predicts that the other main effort of disinformation that could hit is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-backed trolling operations on Twitter or other platforms.
The bottom line: “There’s a lot of anti-U.S. activity, but right now there isn’t enough evidence to say that there’s a large-scale coordinated operation going on,” says Nimmo.
Previously – It was reported on 31 December 2019 that local staff were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, while others remained inside a safe room within the compound as thousands of protesters and militia fighters thronged the gates in fury at U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, the AP reports.
US Embassy Baghdad December 2019
What to watch…