The US Department of Justice has announced the seizure of some 92 internet domains it claims were being “unlawfully used” by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to “engage in a global disinformation campaign.”
According to the DoJ, four of the domains in question disguised themselves as genuine news outlets aimed at American users, “but were actually controlled by the IRGC and targeted the United States for the spread of Iranian propaganda to influence United States domestic and foreign policy, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.”
The rest of the domains, the DoJ claims, were used to “spread Iranian propaganda to other parts of the world,” including Western Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The FBI said the investigation leading to the seizures was initiated following a tipoff from Google, with the domestic US intelligence agency then working with the search engine giant, as well as Facebook and Twitter, to investigate further.
FBI special agent in charge of the San Francisco division John Bennett praised US tech companies’ cooperation with the government, suggesting that the relationships between the state and private companies “enable a quick exchange of information to better protect against threats to the nation’s security and our democratic processes.”
Among the domains seized were “newsstand7.com,” “usjournal.net,” “usjournal.us” and “twtoday.net”. Typing any of these addresses into the USL address bar brings up a splash page with the text “THIS WEBSITE HAS BEEN SEIZED,” along with the logos of the DoJ and the FBI.
However, a cursory examination of the sites using the Wayback Machine Internet Archive tool shows that the websites appeared to have been news outlets and aggregators featuring information which US authorities may have found unflattering, including stories on the recent anti-racism and police violence protests across America, allegations of efforts by members of the Trump administration to enrich themselves amid the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and other critical coverage.
The DoJ did not specify the methodology it used to determine that the news outlets were “actually controlled by the IRGC,” but stated that neither the Government of Iran nor the IRGC received a license from Office of Foreign Assets Control to utilize website and domain services in the United States. The IRGC was designated as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ by the US government in April 2019.
Iran has yet to comment on the seizure of the domains. However, it has previously slammed Washington and US tech companies for censoring its foreign-language media.
Systematic Anti-Iran Campaign Online
On September 30, Twitter removed about 130 accounts it said were “linked to Iran” and which allegedly tried to ‘disrupt the public conversation’ during the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden on September 30. Twitter claimed the decision to remove the accounts was “based on intel” provided by the FBI.
This summer, Facebook and Twitter labeled a number of Iranian, Russian, and Chinese news outlets as “state media,” and blocked ads from them targeting US users. The new rules did not apply the label to the BBC, or to any US media outlets, including those funded directly by the US government.
Last year, Twitter deleted thousands of accounts it alleged were “associated with – or directly backed by – the Iranian government.” In April 2019, Facebook deleted accounts belonging to prominent IRGC figures, under the pretext of US sanctions.
At the same time that it has censored Iranian media and leaders, the US has accused Iran of censoring its own internet, and has pressured social media companies to take down the pages of Iranian officials.