Politics

Bots artificially enhance Zarif's Twitter presence

By Sina Farhadi

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Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif is seen here in Tehran, in February. [Atta Kenare/AFP]

Even though Twitter is filtered in Iran and banned for ordinary people, most Iranian officials have active Twitter accounts -- a contradictory state of affairs that has vexed the Iranian public.

To access social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Telegram, members of the Iranian public need to use VPNs. Instagram is generally more popular in the country as it is not filtered.

As the public is denied access, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, many MPs and most ministers, including foreign minister Javad Zarif, are active on Twitter and regularly use it for announcements and messaging.

Among all Iranian government officials on Twitter, Zarif is the most active, appears to have the largest audience and receives the most reactions to his tweets, most of which are posted in English.

"Zarif's main task is to cover up the true face of the Islamic republic in the world, and he is carrying out the task very openly on Twitter," Tehran-based journalist Mina Bashiri told Al-Mashareq.

For instance, Bashiri said, "he tweets about human rights in Iran. He defends the regime and says human rights are not violated and religious minorities are not suppressed in Iran".

These assertions fly in the face of recent evidence.

"Zarif claimed a few years ago that he did not tweet in Farsi in order to comply with the Islamic republic's regulations and the ban on Twitter in the country," she said. (Zarif does tweet in Farsi, albeit rarely.)

But this is a false justification, she said, because the ban on the use of Twitter in Iran does not distinguish between Farsi and English.

Twitter bots part of Zarif's following

Many internet observers and social media experts believe a large number of Zarif's Twitter followers are in fact bots.

A Twitter bot is a type of software that can be programmed to autonomously perform actions on the social media platform that mimic those of a real person.

In an interview in Iran in 2018, Zarif himself admitted that he was not popular among Iranians who are active on social media.

"Most Iranians on Twitter are not on good terms with me," he said, failing to explain how, even so, he had managed to gain hundreds of thousands of followers.

"A large number of Zarif's Twitter followers are bots," social media expert Sohrab Karami told Al-Mashareq.

"Most of his posts have less than 2,000 'likes' on Twitter," Karami noted, pointing out that "this is a very unusual [low] number for an account with 1.5 million followers".

In early 2019, Twitteraudit.com estimated Zarif's Twitter account had more than 100,000 "fake" followers. At the time, Zarif had 700,000 fewer followers than he has today.

Cyber Army increases social media buzz

Quoting the Tribune, a French daily, Karami said the Iranian government has some 255,000 employees collectively known as the Cyber Army.

Members of the Cyber Army are hired to participate in and influence social networks, and each of them manages an average of four to five accounts on Twitter and other forms of social media.

In order to keep working and getting paid, the regime's Cyber Army members must submit a daily report on their performance. In addition to following and "liking" posts, they are assigned to comment on and support the regime's views.

"A large part of the Cyber Army's activities are in Farsi, but some are in English," Karami said, noting that the Tribune estimated the number of Cyber Army members at 255,000 in mid-2011.

"I imagine the group has expanded over the last nine years," he said.

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