United States officials say they are outraged by a government-funded troll campaign that has targeted American citizens critical of the administration’s hardline Iran policy and accused critics of being loyal to the Tehran regime.
State Department officials admitted to Congressional staff in a closed-door meeting on Monday that a project they had funded to counter Iranian propaganda had gone off the rails. Critics in Washington have gone further, saying that the programme resembled the type of troll farms used by autocratic regimes abroad.
“It’s completely unacceptable that American taxpayer dollars supported a project that attacked Americans and others who are critical of the Trump administration’s policy of escalation and conflict with Iran,” a senior Congressional aide told The Independent, on condition of anonymity.
The State Department’s Global Engagement Center  erred from the beginning by entrusting the effort to counter Iranian regime propaganda to an outside contractor with such hard-line views. There was clearly a failure to supervise what the contractor was doing with the funding provided by the department, and the result was outsourcing the department’s work to self-serving ideologues. Had it not been for the public outcry and investigations by several of the people being targeted by this department-funded operation, the department might not have realized what was being done with its own resources until much later and it might not have acknowledged the error at all.
The department should also review its relationship with the contractor responsible for the smear campaign, because paying someone to do little more than harass political opponents because they are insufficiently hard-line is a waste of the public’s money and serves no legitimate public interest:
E-Collaborative for Civic Education, co-founded by Iranian American activist Mariam Memarsadeghi, is a long-time State Department contractor.
It purports to promote democratic political life and empower civil society inside Iran, but it appears to have no presence inside the country and instead confines itself to engaging with Iranians in the Diaspora.
In this case, the engagement with Iranians in the diaspora amounted to shouting abuse at many of them and harassing those that didn’t toe a certain ideological line. As the scandal proves, hard-line regime changers have a very warped idea of what qualifies as pro-regime rhetoric and who can be considered a regime supporter, and so it should come as no surprise that this operation turned its ire on the many Iranian-American professionals that didn’t get with the hawkish program. This calls into question whether the department is capable of countering disinformation from foreign governments without indulging the worst and most hawkish people that want to use such efforts to settle scores against their fellow Americans. It is good that Congress is looking into how this particular scandal happened, but there have to be changes made to how the department runs the Global Engagement Center so that something like this can’t happen again.
One of the absurdities of this smear campaign is that it has targeted the very journalists and analysts that have been far more effective in countering the Iranian government’s false claims through their reporting and analysis. The Iran Disinformation Project went after these journalists and analysts because they refused to recite arguments in favor of regime change and war. They were targeted because they were independent and credible observers and critics of Iran and U.S. Iran policy, and that meant that they used their expertise and understanding of the country to question the wisdom and efficacy of sanctions and spoke out against the folly of military intervention. Iran hawks desperately need to discredit and smear people like this because they pose a major threat to the promotion of the hawks’ agenda. Fortunately, their smear tactics aren’t working very well these days.