The woman exposing the propaganda puppet masters

Dr Emma Briant, one of the key researchers who uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018

The vortex of misinformation, conspiracy theories, hatred and lies that we know as the unacceptable face of the internet has been well documented in recent years. Less well documented are the players behind these campaigns. But a small and growing group of journalists and researchers are working on shining a light on their activities. Dr Emma Briant is one of them. The professor, who is currently an associate at the Center for Financial Reporting and Accountability, University of Cambridge, is an internationally recognised expert who has researched information warfare and propaganda for nearly two decades. Her approach is that she doesn’t just research one party in the information war. Instead Briant considers each opponent, even those in democratic states, a breadth and detail that is important. As she tells me you miss half the story if you concentrate on single examples.

“This is a world in which there is an information war going on all sides and you can’t understand it without looking at all sides. There isn’t a binary of evil and pure. In order to understand how we can move forward in more ethical ways we need to understand the challenge that we are facing in our world of other actors who are trying to mislead us,” Briant says.

“There are powerful profit-making industries that are reshaping our world. We need to better research and understand that, to not simply expose some in isolated campaigns like they are just bad apples,” she adds.

Briant is perhaps best known for her work on Cambridge Analytica. She was central in exposing the data scandal related to the firm and Facebook at the time of the USA’s 2016 election. So what drove her to this area of research?

“My PhD looked at the war on terror and how the British and Americans were coordinating and developing their propaganda apparatus and strategies in response to changing media forms and changing warfare. Now that led me to meet Cambridge Analytica or rather its predecessor, the firm SCL group. Cambridge Analytica were using the kind of propaganda that had been used in the military, but in this case in elections, in democratic countries.”

The groundwork for this research was laid much earlier, when Briant lived as a child in Saudi Arabia around the time of the Gulf War. She was shocked to find lines and lines of Western newspapers censored with black pen, to the point you couldn’t read them, and pro-US and anti-Iraq propaganda everywhere.

“I was amazed by the efforts at social control,” she said.

Then, during her first degree, she studied international relations and politics when 9/11 happened and, as she says, “the world changed”.

“I was really very concerned about what we were being fed, about the spin of the Iraq war,” says Briant.

Like many she was inspired by a teacher, in her case Caroline Page.

“[Page] wrote a book on Vietnam and propaganda, and she had interviewed people in the American government and I was amazed that a woman could just go over to America and interview people in politics and in government and get really amazing interviews with high level officials. This really inspired me.”

Briant was motivated by both Page’s example and her specific work.

“She wanted to really find out what was going on and understand the actors behind the propaganda. And that is what really fascinates me most. Who’s behind the lies and the distortions? That’s why I’ve taken the approach that I have, both in looking at power in organisations like governments and how that’s deployed, and looking at how we can govern that power in democracies better.”

Because of Briant’s all-sided approach, she says she can attract the ire of people across the spectrum. People who focus only on Russia, for instance, might dislike that Briant critiques the British government. Conversely, people who are critics of the UK and US government call into question whether she should challenge Russian or Chinese propaganda. But, as she reiterates, “it’s really important to have researchers who are willing to take on that difficult issue of not only understanding a particular actor but understanding the conflict, protecting ordinary people and enabling them to have media they can trust and information online which is not deceptive.”

Criticism of her work has at times taken on a sinister edge. Briant is, sadly, no stranger to threats, trolling and other forms of online harassment.

“It’s very difficult to even just exist online if you’re doing powerful work, without getting trolled,” Briant says.

“The type of work that I do, which isn’t just analysing public media posts and how they spread, but is also looking at specific groups’ responsibilities and basically researching with a journalistic role in my research, that kind of thing tends to attract more harassment than just looking at online observable disinformation spread. Academics doing such work require support.”

Briant cites the case of Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist at the Guardian, as an example of how online campaigns are used to silence people. Like Briant, Cadwalladr pointed the looking glass at those behind the misinformation that spread in the lead-up to the EU referendum. Cadwalladr experienced extreme online harassment, as well as a lengthy and very expensive legal battle. Taken by Arron Banks, the case had all the hallmarks of being a SLAPP, a strategic lawsuit against public participation, namely, a lawsuit that has little to no legal merit. Its purpose is instead to silence the accused through draining them of emotional, physical and financial resources.

Briant has not been the subject of a SLAPP herself but has experienced other attempts to threaten, intimidate and silence her. Meanwhile, the threat of lawfare lingers in the background and has affected her work.

“Legal harassment has a real impact on what you feel like you are able to say. At one point after the Cambridge Analytica scandal it felt like I couldn’t work on highly sensitive work with a degree of privacy without the threat of being hacked or legal threats to obtain data or efforts to silence me. You cannot develop research on powerful actors and corrupt or deceptive activities as a journalist or a researcher without knowing your work is secure,” Briant says.

The ecosystem might be changing. New legislation has been proposed that will make using SLAPPs harder in the UK, where they are most common (the US, by comparison, has laws in place to limit them). But, as Briant highlights, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

“I don’t think people really understand the silencing effect of threat, not necessarily even receiving a letter but the potential of people to open up your private world.  The exposure of journalism activities before an investigation is complete enables people to use partial information to misrepresent the activities, it can even put sources at risk,” she says.

While Briant believes these harassment campaigns can affect anyone doing the sort of work that she and Cadwalladr do, she says we can’t ignore the gender dynamic.

“Trolling and harassment affects a lot of different women and women are much more likely to experience this than men who are doing powerful work challenging people. This is just true. It’s been shown by Julie Posetti and her team, and it’s also the case if you look at other minorities or vulnerable communities.”

Of course if Briant was just a bit player people might not care as much. Instead, Briant has given testimony to the European Parliament and had her work discussed in US Congress. She’s written one book, co-authored another and has contributed to two major documentary films (one being the Oscar-shortlisted Netflix film The Great Hack). In today’s world, the attacks she has received have become part of the price people are paying for successful work. Still it’s an unacceptable price, one that we need to speak about more.

Briant is doing that, as well as more broadly carrying on with her research. She’s also writing her next two books, one of which revisits Cambridge Analytica. In Briant fashion, it places the company in a wider context.

“I’m looking at different organisations and discussing the transformation of the influence industry. This is really a very new phenomenon. Digital influence mercenaries are being deployed in our elections and are shaping our world.”

Iran shuts down internet after protests spiral over 22-year-old’s death

Iranians are again finding it impossible to access the internet and social media messaging platforms after yet another shutdown by the country’s authorities. The move comes after protests erupted in the country, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini (right) last Friday.

Critics say the shutdown of services and the filtering of content is restricting freedom of expression and preventing peaceful protest. Access to news in Iran is strictly controlled by the government and for many Iranians, their only access to independent news sources is through digital platforms.

Amini, a Kurdish woman from Saggez in Iranian Kurdistan, was visiting relatives in Tehran on 13 September when she was arrested by the Gasht-e Ershad. These so-called “morality police” uphold respect for Islamic morals, including detaining women who they see as being improperly dressed, such as wearing revealing or tight-fitting clothing or not wearing the required hijab.

The morality police detained Amini as she and her brother were coming out of the city’s Haqqani metro station. Eyewitnesses said Amini was brutally assaulted by the agents inside their vehicle and then taken to a police station.

Two hours after her arrest, Amini went into a coma. She was then taken to Kasra Hospital where doctors said she had suffered a heart stroke and brain haemorrhage due to a fractured skull. She died on Friday, 16 September.

Ever since her death, protests have spread across the country, reaching more than 80 cities nationwide. In typical fashion, the authorities have responded by shutting down access to the internet in a bid to quell the protests.

Iran is one of the world’s biggest censors of the internet. The country has been concerned about the internet since the turn of the millennium and has been operating a sophisticated system of hardware and software-based content filtering ever since. A broad project now known as the National Information Network (NIN), and similar to China’s Great Firewall, was launched in 2005. It requires companies to use Iranian data centres and forces internet users to register using their social IDs and telephone numbers.

NIN was finally fully implemented in 2019 and that same year Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said of the internet, “During these past 40 years, and today as ever, the enemy’s propaganda and communication policy, as well as its most active programmes, have revolved around making people and even our officials and statesmen lose their hope in the future. False news, biased analysis, reversing facts, concealing the hopeful aspects, amplifying small problems and berating or denying great advantages, have been constantly on the agenda of thousands of audio-visual and internet-based media by the enemies of the Iranian people.”

The country also has a history of using internet shutdowns to crack down on dissent.

In 2019, protests broke out across the country when the Iranian government announced a 50 per cent increase in fuel prices and monthly rationing of petrol. More than 100 people died, according to reports. The government swiftly shut down the internet and mobile networks for several days.

In February 2021, at least ten fuel couriers in Sistan and Baluchistan province on the border with Pakistan were killed after a two-day stand-off triggered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps blocking the road to the city of Saravan. The killings triggered demonstrations, leading to further deaths, and the regime shut down the internet across several cities in the province.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said at the time:Blanket internet shutdowns violate the principles of necessity and proportionality applicable to restrictions of freedom of expression and constitute a violation of international human rights law.”

The protests around the death of Mahsa Amini have seen the Iranian authorities reach for the internet shutdown playbook once more.

NetBlocks and AccessNow report that internet access began to be disrupted in Tehran and other parts of the country on the day of Amini’s death and on Monday 19 September, internet access was shut down almost totally in parts of the Kurdistan province.

The KeepItOn coalition, of which AccessNow is a member, said that this represents Iran’s third internet shutdown in less than 12 months. They said the “repressive, knee-jerk response to recent protests seriously interferes with people’s right to freedom of expression and assembly”.

Iranians have increasingly resorted to using unfiltered channels to get their news, as the only parts of the internet that they can access are censored. By 2018, it was believed that more than half of Iran’s population were using Telegram. In April that year the judiciary banned the popular messaging app, claiming it has been used to organise attacks and street protests. Since then, Iranians have switched to WhatsApp and Instagram.

It comes as no surprise that with the current protests NetBlocks has reported that access to Instagram, one of the last remaining social media platforms in Iran, was restricted across all major internet providers on Wednesday 21 September.

The authorities appear to have clamped down because of the widespread nature of the protests and, perhaps more worryingly for the regime, a large number of video clips that have gone viral and which they are keen to suppress.

A peaceful protest in Saqqez

Not just the young

A clip of several men defending a woman who has removed her hijab

Another video clip shared on Twitter by British comedian Omid Djalili, whose parents are Iranian, suggested that, perhaps, attitudes may finally be changing in Iran.

Responding to the crackdown on protest and the internet shutdowns, experts from the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures group said in a statement, “Disruptions to the internet are usually part of a larger effort to stifle the free expression and association of the Iranian population, and to curtail ongoing protests. State-mandated internet disruptions cannot be justified under any circumstances.”

“Over the past four decades, Iranian women have continued to peacefully protest against the compulsory hijab rules and the violations of their fundamental human rights,” the experts said. “Iran must repeal all legislation and policies that discriminate on the grounds of sex and gender, in line with international human rights standards.”

Speaking to Index, exiled Iranian film-maker Vahid Zarezdeh said the WhatsApp and Instagram ban means he has been cut off from his young son and the rest of his family still in the country.

He said, “In the absence of independent parties and free media, Iranian society gets its news and events, social and political issues from the internet. News reaches its audience very quickly and people can easily distinguish fake news from real news. How, you ask? The solution is very easy. By looking at the state television, you can understand which news is true and which is false. Whenever the government reacts sharply to news and prepares a report, it is very likely that the news is true, and when it ignores the news and is indifferent, it means that it is fake.”

State TV has been reporting on the protests but its coverage has focused less on the protests by women and instead suggesting that the unrest has been caused by Iran’s enemies, rather than spurred on by the regime’s crackdown. Certainly, TV viewers in the country have not seen the clips above.

“This is a system of repression and the Iranian regime does not care what the world community thinks about it and human rights,” said Zarezdeh.

He added, “It’s more than forty years since Iranian women started to be ignored by the Islamic regime.  Now they have found the courage and belief to stand in front of the bullets with empty hands and without a scarf.

Index condemns 34-year sentence for Salma al-Shehab

Photo: Instagram

Index on Censorship has expressed its concern over the unwarranted prison sentence of 34 years handed out to Saudi national Salma al-Shehab, who was a student at the University of Leeds in the UK at the time of her alleged crimes – tweeting in support of prisoners of conscience and retweeting statements of support of the Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul.

Al-Shehab, who was studying for a PhD in oral and human health, was arrested on 15 January 2021 after going back to Saudi Arabia to spend the holiday with her husband and two children, Adam and Noah (right). It is understood she was planning to return to the UK with her family.

She was questioned for almost a year before being charged by the Specialised Criminal Court under various parts of the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law for “supporting those seeking to disrupt public order, undermining the safety of the general public and stability of the state, and publishing false and tendentious rumours on Twitter”, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GC4HR).

Al-Shehab was initially handed a six-year sentence last year but on appeal this was increased to 34 years, including a discretionary five years added by the judge. She has also been slapped with a travel ban for a further 34 years following her sentence.

The GC4HR says the sentence is the longest ever given to a peaceful activist.

Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship, said: “Index condemns the 34-year sentence passed on Salma Al-Shehab and calls for her immediate and unconditional release. The decision of the Saudi authorities to charge Salma for merely retweeting other people’s tweets while at university in the UK is yet another example of the growing trend of authoritarian governments to apply their draconian laws beyond their own borders.”

She added: “We fear we are sleep-walking into a situation where no one is safe from any law, no matter where in the world they are, and we call on the international community to unite in their condemnation of her sentencing. Using your voice to dissent should not be a crime, nor should supporting others who do.”

One of Al-Shehab’s supposed crimes was to tweet about prisoners of conscience and to retweet tweets relating to the Saudi women’s rights defender Loujain Alhathloul, one of six jailed people that Index supported in our 2020 end of year campaign. Alhathloul was eventually released in 2021.

In a pinned tweet, published on 30 August 2019, al-Shehab said, “I reject injustice, and support the oppressed…. Freedom for prisoners of conscience and for all the oppressed in the world.” 

Loujain’s sister Lina Alhathloul, head of monitoring and communications for ALQST, an independent NGO established in 2014 by Saudi Arabian human rights defender Yahya Assiri, said: This appalling sentence makes a mockery of the Saudi authorities’ claims of reform for women and of the legal system, and shows that they remain hellbent on harshly punishing anyone who expresses their opinions freely. Saudi activists warned Western leaders that giving legitimacy to the crown prince would pave the way for more abuses, which is unfortunately what we are witnessing now.”

The organisation said it feared al-Shehab’s sentence “may be the start of a new trend that the Saudi authorities will follow in the days ahead, as a mechanism for punishing all who criticise either their domestic or foreign policies”.

It added: “This is of particular concern now that normal diplomatic relations have been restored between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other world leaders, after having been strained since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the crown prince’s orders.

Iran enters the multiverse of madness

People in authoritarian countries often feel as though they are living in a multiverse, with different versions of reality. Iran is a case in point.

On Thursday 26 May, up to 100,000 people including families with children flocked to the Azadi Stadium in Tehran to celebrate the release of a new pop song. This may seem little different from, say, crowds of screaming teenagers going to Wembley Stadium to worship Harry Styles.

Calling Salam Farmandeh “pop” is a bit of a stretch. The song, which translates as Hello Commander in English, is state-backed and tells the story of a young child who is speaking to Imam Mahdi, a messianic figure in Islam who rids the world of evil and injustice. The song also references the country’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.

The pro-government Tehran Times said the song’s performer Abouzar Rouhi had risen “to national, if not international, prominence for his tuneful song” while recognising that Rouhi “isn’t a singer in the true sense of the word”.

Government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi said the song and concert was “a manifestation of [the children of] the 1390s [the 2010s] pledging allegiance to the Revolution”.

In an alternate reality at the same time, demonstrators also took to the streets of Iran following a collapse of a building on Monday 23 May in Abadan in south-western Iran in which at least 31 people are known to have died and scores more injured. The collapse of the Metropol building has been blamed on developer greed and corruption but the protests have become sharper following indifference to the plight of the families of the dead and injured.

Thousands of security forces have now descended on Abadan and other regional cities and protesters have been met with teargas and even bullets, with the response bordering on martial law in some cases.

There have also been protests in the Tehran suburb of Shahr-e Ray, where protesters chanted “Death to the dictator” in reference to Ali Khamenei.

“Public expressions of dissent are not tolerated in Iran,” said Hannah Somerville, editor of IranWire English, “and even less so in the border areas, which the mullahs regard as posing a heightened ‘security’ risk due to the diverse demographic makeup and higher rates of deprivation.”

She said: “The Supreme Leader’s first statement acknowledging the incident came three days too late. When it did arrive, it was desultory at best. That was ultimately what sparked the protests late last week, together with state media outlets deliberately minimising the disaster – for instance, by making reference only to ‘superficial injuries’ and not the number of dead. The head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting openly told a group of students at Sharif University of Technology on Monday that he had been asked to limit coverage to an hour or two at most.”

By contrast the coverage of the alternate reality – the Hello Commander concert – was extensive.

“The timing of this propaganda-fest could not have been worse, and will doubtless have further incensed any devastated families in Abadan who saw it on their TV screens,” said Somerville.

Following the protests, the internet has been disrupted in several major cities in the Khuzestan region including Abadan: a tactic to restrict the free flow of information that the Iranian state always deploys during times of popular unrest.

Mahsa Alimardani, senior researcher for MENA at Article 19, says the internet has been disconnected from 5pm to early morning on most days since protests started.

The authorities are always quick to cover up the reasons for the internet shutdowns.

“The Telecommunications Infrastructure Company announced on 26 May there would be nationwide disruptions related to infrastructure changes and updates,” said Alimardani.

The shutdowns have affected coverage of the protests in the country where WhatsApp and Instagram are both hugely popular.

The government has previously restricted coverage of protests on Instagram, said Alimardani.

“We had issues with protest content removals in July 2021, when we documented over 200 cases of protest footage being removed from Instagram,” she said. “Discussions with Instagram back then led to a temporary exception during the protests to allow for the chant that was being labelled as ‘violent incitement’ by their policies to stay on. The chant is a tradition of all Iran’s protests – “death to the dictator; death to Khamenei; death to the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]”.

IranWire’s Somerville says the cover-up of the situation in Abadan is a symptom of the government’s obsession with the ‘problem’ of the country’s youth.

“The situation is even more charged because we already know several of the tens of victims of the Metropol collapse were young people, “the youth” being a fixation for both Ali Khamenei and in Islamic Republic revolutionary doctrine, hence the Hello Commander event. This is not a story the regime wants told. The protest suppression and media muzzling are part and parcel of the same effort to make sure the story stays buried along with those young people from Abadan,” she said.

The Iranian government’s efforts to hide the news from Abadan and show their own version of the world were further stymied when Iranian actor Zahra Amir Ebrahimi referenced the situation when accepting the award for best actress at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

Ebrahimi won the award for her portrayal of an investigative journalist in the Persian-language crime thriller Holy Spider, which is based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, a serial killer who targeted sex workers in the city of Mashad in 2000 and 2001. At the time, Hanaei became a folk hero for the ultra-religious conservatives for “cleansing” the city of prostitution.

Ebrahimi said in her speech, “Although I am very happy at moment, part of my being is sad for the Iranian people who are facing many problems every day. My heart is with the people of Abadan.”

Her comments won’t go down well the Iranian government and its attempts to create an alternate reality where all is well with the world.