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How Is Iranian Propaganda Playing in the Gulf States?

If the Iranians feel like their message wasn’t getting through, they may feel the need to try again.
How Is Iranian Propaganda Playing in the Gulf States?
Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh / Unsplash

Early last Sunday, April 14, the Iranian government launched hundreds of drones and missiles into Israel. The attack represented a dramatic escalation of Iran’s involvement in the war in Gaza, with Tehran claiming the attack was retaliation for an Israeli missile strike that killed two Iranian generals in Damascus. The retaliations continued this morning with an Israeli attack on Iran.

Through its Arabic-language data tools, FilterLabs.AI has been following the information war in the Middle East closely. What the Iranian government says about itself, and its neighbors, just might clue us into some ways the conflict might escalate. This week, one thing we’ve been examining is whether Iran’s messaging is gaining any traction in the region.

FilterLabs CEO Jonathan Teubner spoke to The New York Times about the attack and about the success — or lack of success — of the Iranian government’s post-attack propaganda blitz. He warned that if the Iranians felt like their message wasn’t getting through, they might feel the need to try again. “If everyone’s kind of like, ‘Oh, you guys didn’t really succeed, is Iran going to feel like it needs to do something more?” Teubner said.   

Historically, Iranian propaganda has pushed two main narratives. First, it asserts that no other actor has provided more help to Palestine than Iran. Like all the best propaganda, this claim has some truth to it. The second is that the Arab states, especially the Sunni regimes controlling the Gulf states, are illegitimate. Islam should mean piety, the Iranian narrative goes, but the Gulf regimes are just enriching themselves.

In the aftermath of the missile attack on Israel, FilterLabs regional experts noted several key narratives that the Iranian government was broadcasting :

  1. Iranian military technology is extremely advanced.
  2. The “Zionist entity” was shaken by the attacks.
  3. The Israeli and the American air defense systems are ineffective.
  4. The goals of the attack were achieved.

FilterLabs launched Arabic-language discursive data on our Talisman platform earlier this year, so we were able to follow these narratives into Arabic-speaking countries and areas and look for both where they were being taken up, and the sentiment surrounding them. For this newsletter, we want to share some of our observations on the first narrative, the superiority of Iran’s military technology, and how it is being received in two countries: Saudi Arabia (Iran’s traditional rival) and Jordan (a US ally with a bilateral relationship with Israel).

Tehran’s preferred narrative did not appear to catch on in mainstream Saudi Arabian media. Using Talisman’s collection of Saudi news media and our Arabic-language LLM (large language model), we ran a query for news media mentions of Iran’s military technology being “good” or “great” :

* news media mentions of Iran’s military technology being “good” or “great”

After the attack there was a slight upward shift in sentiment regarding Iranian war technology. It looks like the stories about the attack discussed the weapons in positive terms (or less negatively than usual). But the sentiment bump was small, and sentiment quickly leveled out, suggesting that any new positivity in Saudi media’s view of Iran’s military tech died out after a day or two. The narrative from Iran had little staying power.

This should not be too surprising. The Saudi government controls the nation’s mainstream media sources and would be unlikely to spend too much time speaking highly of its rival's military might. 

The picture on Saudi social media looked a bit different:

* social media mentions of Iran’s military technology being “good” or “great”

There was an immediate sentiment bump at the time of the attack, and sentiment stayed a bit elevated for several days after. The bump in sentiment score around the attack suggests that online commentators were speaking about Iranian military technology in more positive terms. 

A note about the data: since discursive data is grouped by date and the time zone used in time stamping varies across platforms, two simultaneous artifacts may be categorized a day apart. For example, a comment posted at 2 a.m. in Riyadh might be time stamped as April 13 (11 p.m. GMT) or April 14 2 a.m. local time, GMT +3), among other possibilities. For this reason, April 13 totals likely include some discourse posted after the attack.

In Jordan, sentiment in mainstream media articles rose a bit:

* news media mentions of Iran’s military technology being “good” or “great”

On social media, sentiment fell, though it partially recovered soon after the attack:

* social media mentions of Iran’s military technology being “good” or “great”

This pattern actually fits Jordan’s unusual role in the region. The Jordanian government, with diplomatic relations to both Israel and other states in the region, is an important regional broker. Their relatively positive media coverage may have aimed to placate some of the Shia militia groups and other parties in the region, assuring them that their technology is impressive, they are a major regional player, etc. (this is exactly how the Iranian government wishes to see itself). This may also be illustrative of how Jordan is attempting to balance its support for Israel.  It’s difficult to make too many firm conclusions based on the social media data, but it is possible that Jordan’s largely Sunni population may have been expressing nervousness about Shiite Iran’s growing aggression. 

FilterLabs analysis of Iran’s post-attack media blitz allows us to draw a few conclusions.

First, Iran is using the Israel-Palestine conflict to pursue its traditional propaganda goals. These include not only criticizing Israel, but also playing up its own importance within the region, and especially insisting on its superiority to the Gulf state monarchies. 

Second, Iranian propaganda is, on the whole, earnest and straightforward. Iranian media boasts of its achievements (or what it sees as achievements) and denigrates its enemies and rivals. Compared to Russian propaganda, its messaging lacks the creativity that is common in the more sophisticated propaganda campaigns. The Iranian regime does not practice misdirection, or flood the airwaves with misleading information, or try to distract or demoralize people with side stories. Russian propagandists are far more creative.

That isn’t entirely a good thing. As Teubner suggested to the Times, if Tehran cannot get the reputation it wants through propaganda, it may be even more likely to seek to bolster that reputation by show of force (which was already looking more likely given Israel’s strike on Iran earlier today). The FilterLabs team will be actively monitoring Iran’s messaging to see how the country responds in the wake of the attack.