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Dictators, Imams, and Social Media

Dictators, Imams, and Social Media

The ubiquity of social media is one of the fundamental changes of our time. While it can be a tool for freedom fighters and resistance movements to communicate with one another and spread revolution, authoritarian powers have not ignored the power they can wield through the new social mediums.

Twitter has been an especially powerful tool for political leaders around the world. For government officials, resistance leaders, terrorists, and human rights advocates, social media has been a great tool both for exposing the truth and spreading misinformation. Donald Trump famously uses Twitter to announce major policy changes, and he isn't alone.

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, uses Twitter to spread his message to English speakers around the world. A powerful propaganda tool, his Twitter account has nearly half a million followers (@khamenei_ir). On March 10, 2018, he used his English-language Twitter account to accuse France, Germany, the United States, and the USSR of aiding Saddam Hussein's 8-year war against the Islamic Republic of Iran by providing Iraq with the weapons necessary to continue the war. Tweets like these help to feed the narrative that Iran is a "resistance" state opposing the unjust world order, rather than an oppressive and authoritarian regime.

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, also uses an official English-language Twitter account to conduct and document diplomatic efforts, but more importantly to share political stances and Iranian propaganda. 

Despite Netanyahu’s claims, the fact is that illegal occupation lies at the heart of most of the calamities in our region. Historically, occupying another’s land has never been sustainable. This occupation, too --and the apartheid system that perpetuates it-- will not last long.
- Javad Zarif (@JZarif) March 6, 2018.

Vladimir Putin also has an official Twitter account that tweets in English. His, however, is much more carefully curated, reflecting his political character. Russian misuse of social media is more blatant in the form of Russian trolls, botnets, and even established Russian media outlets. Kremlin-backed news agencies like RT and Sputnik spread propaganda and misinformation freely on Twitter and other mediums. Russia has fully capitalized on the popularity of social media in Western and international culture.

Hezbollah, the Shia Lebanese resistance group and US-designated terrorist organization, uses social media differently. Neither the group nor its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have official Twitter accounts. Rather, they use Soundcloud to broadcast full speeches by Nasrallah as well as propaganda music. Avoiding the screaming match on Twitter and allowing for a full transmission of the leader's speeches seems to have worked well for the group.

The myriad possibilities of our new communication networks have yet to be exhausted. With every new digital innovation, dictators and their security services will continue to weaponize information technology. In the age of digital propaganda, it's more difficult and more important to recognize when you are being manipulated.

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