Troll Watch: Make Iran Great Again

July 6, 2019 2:18 pm By

At first glance, the 4th of July, QAnon, and Iran might not seem to have much in common. This past week, a strange network on Twitter combining these three elements came to my attention. 

Background

Seyed Mohammad Hosseini is an Iranian game show host turned political refugee now living in the U.S. From his American home, he uses social media to call for the burning of mosques, banks, and police stations in Iran as part of his movement to overthrow the Islamic government, a goal he pursues with his opposition group called “Restart.”

Seyed Mohammad Hosseini. Source: Voice of Restart

According to The Daily Beast, other opposition groups in Iran have criticized his methods, saying he purposely incites violence as a way to discredit legitimate activist groups. Critics also charge Hosseini spreads unfounded conspiracy theories:

One of Mohammad Hosseini’s more fantastic claims is that Ayatollah Khamenei either died or went into coma a year ago. Currently, he says, somebody who looks like him is playing the role of the Supreme Leader.

Hosseini has even tried to predict the future:

…he said that according to predictions by the Sufi Master Shah Nematollah Wali (1330-1431) 700 years ago, the Islamic Republic will crumble in 2018. 

Needless to say, this prophecy failed to come to pass. Since 2016, this is the way Hosseini has operated, hoping to gain the support of the American government. With the election of Donald Trump, it seems he may have found a president whose goals and sensibilities align with his own.

The Connections

It’s hard to say what first attracted Hosseini to Trump, but one of the biggest consistencies in the Restart leader’s social media presence has been his opposition to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump railed against this deal during his campaign, carried his criticism over into his presidency, and most recently withdrew the U.S. from the agreement. Trump has repeatedly claimed that President Obama “gave Iran 150 billion dollars” in the deal – which is false because:

  1. the nuclear agreement was made by more than just Obama; it included China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the European Union as well.
  2. then-acting-Under Secretary of Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence Adam Szubin testified to Congress that Iran only received about $50 billion in “usable liquid assets” from the agreement.

We all know by now Trump lies. What’s important is for this article’s purpose is that Hosseini has not only retweeted Trump’s lies, but he has co-opted them and repeated them for his own purposes, as can be seen in the following tweets:

As can be seen from the tweets above, Hosseini employs the same language of the alt-right. It is no wonder, then, that the alt-right began to boost his message. In 2018, Hosseini was interviewed by Info Wars (archived link), during which he proclaimed that Trump “signaled” his support for Restart by imposing sanctions on Iran following the withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Hosseini also repeated what is now common catchphrase among his supporters: Iran needs its own Fourth of July, its own 1776. It wasn’t until June 24th of this year, though, that Restart’s message reached the White House through a hashtag: #MIGA

Info Wars screenshot

A common tactic of Trump followers, including Restart, is to reply to Trump’s tweets to gain visibility.

Replies to Trump pre-dating June 22

There’s no way to prove this is where Trump first noticed the hashtag, or whether it was from Restart directly or from an alt-right associate account, but one thing is sure: On June 22, 2019, Trump said the phrase “Make Iran Great Again” on national television. This brought unprecedented attention to Restart and Hosseini; Trump supporters began using the hashtag as well, spreading Restart’s message. 


It is now not uncommon to see QAnon’s hashtags co-mingling with Make Iran Great Again. And is it any wonder the two groups are compatible? Like Hosseini, QAnon followers spread conspiracy theories of body doubles (e.g. Justice Ginsberg and JFK) and prophecies of an end to their enemies (the Deep State). It’s a match made in alt-right heaven.

Merging of Qanon and Make Iran Great Again hashtags

Who are these Twitter users pushing MIGA hashtags? As we all know, Twitter is full of trolls and bots. Trump himself has 7.4 million bot followers, even after Twitter’s crackdown. A test of the MIGA accounts suggests part of the secret to the hashtag’s success are bot accounts, spreading both Restart and Trump messages. 

A telltale sign of bot accounts: duplicate tweets in a short period of time

I used Bot Sentinel to test a subset of the MIGA accounts, which yielded the following results: @seven9restart 95%; @Restart_512 94%; @Semahos_T 87%; @RESTARTEES 86%; @LionSunPersia 86%; @R__challenge 84%; @Erfan_945 79%; @WeAreRestartees 78%. There is a common misconception that accounts must be either a bot or human-operated. In reality, many accounts are operated by a real human while also have some automated features. For example, many are programmed to reply immediately with a pre-written message to any tweet from Donald Trump’s account.

The four MIGI accounts with the highest Bot Sentinel scores

Conclusion

This has all seemed rather benign, hasn’t it? Aside from inciting violence Iran, Restart hasn’t been much of a threat. With the intermingling of Trump supporters and Hosseini supporters, however, the call for war with Iran is becoming magnified. Hosseini recognizes that Restart has the best chance at achieving regime change with foreign assistance; this has never seemed more within reach than it is now, with Donald Trump as Commander in Chief.

It is for this reason that we must pay attention to Restart’s influence campaign, now merged with the alt-right and entering the president’s media diet. Hosseini and his supporters are not shy about calling for war with Iran:

Examples of #MIGI accounts advocating for war with Iran

Examples of #MIGI accounts advocating for war with Iran

Finally, I’ll leave you with this tantalizing quote in the hopes of provoking further digging into how we got here:

…senior officials in the Trump Administration have been pushing forward a legal pretext to go to war with Iran: that the government is harboring members of Al Qaeda. This argument relies on a one-sentence law, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed three days after 9/11, which empowers the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” in the commission of 9/11. It was passed by Congress with near-total unanimity, and yet, since then, it has come to reflect the legislative branch’s abdication of its role in the separation of war powers.

~New Yorker, 6/27/2019

 

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