For nearly two weeks, there have been large demonstrations in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that began over severe shortages in water supplies and quickly escalated into anti-regime protests. Other cities and townships in Iran followed suit in support of protests in Khuzestan. This is the natural course of all protests in Iran under the Islamic Republic. They are initially triggered by a sharp rise in the price of necessities or scarcity of resources, then the culprit for the upheaval is correctly targeted and condemned. That culprit, the Islamic Republic regime, then attacks the protesters with brute force, assaulting and killing innocent people in the process.
It is not excessive to say that anti-regime protests have become the norm in Iran, but they are far from normal. There is nothing normal about having to protest for one’s basic needs and rights, only to face batons, tear gas, or in many cases, live rounds of bullets. It is not normal when the regime’s security apparatus mercilessly quell a peaceful assembly of citizens whose sole stipulation is access to life’s essentials, including water, and their fundamental rights.
Notwithstanding the moral metric that would differentiate between normal and abnormal for a reasonable person, there are regime sympathizers in the U.S. who consider protests a normal practice by which the Iranian people express their grievances in what they portray as a “democratic society.” They claim protests are inherent to the Iranian culture and have roots in Iran’s sociopolitical history. When violent repression and massacre ensue such protests, these apologists who usually identify as “Iran analysts” opine that lethal repression is the categorical right of the Islamic Republic, referencing Thomas Hobbes’ social contract theory. The corollary to these outlandish, pseudo-intellectual statements is that protests and the regime’s subsequent sadistic reaction are both normal and thus should be tolerated. These absurd comments by second-tier pundits are then devoured as “facts” by news networks that pursue that sort of narrative.
There is a more methodical way to bestow normalcy to these crises, and that is accomplished through propaganda that favors the Islamic Republic, albeit subliminally. The most common type of propaganda used by regime apologists is the “propaganda of omission,” which could be considered under the category of white propaganda. In white propaganda, information with a verifiable source is promoted to the extreme. In propaganda of omission, which is primarily utilized by left-wing publications, an important piece of information is intentionally excluded or buried under the barrage of peripheral facts surrounding an event. Repression of protesters in Iran is often either entirely omitted from the news or very little is reported on it, compared with secondary issues related to those protests. An example is reporting that an Islamic Republic security officer was attacked and beaten by the demonstrators, yet failing to elaborate on the circumstances under which the attack unfolded or disclose the savagery perpetrated by security forces.
Gray propaganda is when one uses verified information to conceal more vital facts, or minimize a much more substantive issue. It is also used to connect two entirely unrelated facts. For instance, pro-regime propagandists masquerading as journalists have been known to characterize anti-regime protests as “protesting amid U.S. sanctions” or “protests over gas prices in Iran due to sanctions.”
Black propaganda is used sporadically on social media by regime apologists. In black propaganda, disinformation is published citing non-existent sources. In a recent Twitter post, for example, a self-proclaimed human rights attorney claimed the protesters in the Khuzestan province were armed, trained and financed by Israel, and infiltrated by the Mujahedin-e-Khalq organization (a Marxist-Islamist cult with a history of terrorist acts).
A unique property of propaganda is its fragility. Propaganda can be quickly rendered ineffective when challenged or contested; even if by one person. Regime sympathizers seldom engage with people who challenge the “information” they circulate or intentionally refrain from providing too much detail. They fear that furnishing additional details could expose the implausible nature of the propaganda. For the same reason, they avoid debates with individuals who oppose their views. They also silence – at least in their Twitter microcosm – critics who confront or question them. Thousands of Iranians have been blocked on Twitter by individuals who are notorious for disseminating pro-regime propaganda. When blocking on social media isn’t effective, they go after their critics with frivolous accusations and seek the suspension of their accounts.
All of these methods have been used with the sole purpose of concealing the truth and painting a normal picture of the Islamic Republic, especially for Western audiences. The combination of these schemes, regardless of who generates and executes them, comprises a covert, sophisticated psychological war against those who seek the truth.
For Iranian dissidents, pro-regime psychological wars – that are very much abnormal – have become the new norm. Consequently, dissidents have developed their own individualized methods to counter the malign current unleashed against them. This process, however, will need to be carried out methodically, avoiding as much as possible personal attacks (which may often be inevitable, but could be counterproductive). Instead, efforts should be focused on debunking the very essence of propaganda and the platforms in which it is published. Propagandists come in all forms and variable sets of skills. Some are quite astute in the art of propaganda, some are lousy. The lousy ones are identified with ease and quickly discredited. For the ones who are employed by major news networks or newspapers, their reservoir and capacity for generating white and gray propaganda is limited. In time, they would have to resort to publishing black propaganda, which will lead to their shunning. Under those circumstances, their visceral self is unleashed, propelling them to utter irrelevance. It is indisputable that the truth will always prevail; it just needs some help with timing. And time is the biggest enemy of lies.
Dr. Reza Behrouz is an Iranian-American physician and university professor based in Texas, USA.