WASHINGTON - The incoming Biden administration is inheriting from President Donald Trump an Iran-focused social media campaign that dramatically boosted U.S. engagement with Iranians by sharply criticizing their Islamist rulers, a strategy that President-elect Joe Biden appears set to change.
Trump and his State Department used a variety of social media channels, messaging techniques and languages to exert what they called "maximum pressure" on Iran's ruling clerics to stop perceived malign behaviors.
One dividend of that strategy was a huge increase in audience for the State Department's Farsi-language Instagram account, according to Gabriel Noronha, who ran its Farsi social media channels from late 2019 to late 2020. In a recent interview with VOA Persian, Noronha said the department's USAdarFarsi (USA in Farsi) Instagram account grew its followers from 147,000 in January 2019 to 759,000 in January 2021, a more than five-fold increase in a two-year period.
Noronha said most engagement for the USAdarFarsi Instagram account comes from inside Iran where Instagram is the only major Western-run social media platform that Iranians can access freely. Facebook and Twitter are blocked by the Iranian government, leaving them accessible only to tech-savvy Iranians using virtual private networks.
Noronha said VPNs, which hide a user's true location, make it hard for the State Department to determine how much traffic for its Persian Facebook and Twitter accounts comes from inside Iran versus from the Iranian diaspora. "For the USAdarFarsi Twitter account, I'd say about half of our traffic comes from Iran and the other half from the U.S. and Europe," Noronha said. "The Facebook account is somewhere between Twitter and Instagram (in terms of the amount of traffic that comes from Iran)," he added.
The types of posts that got the most engagement on the USAdarFarsi accounts had three main themes, according to Noronha.
"Iranian social media users were most appreciative when we posted messages that supported their denunciations of the Iranian regime for imprisoning and executing rights activists, that endorsed their calls for anti-government protests and that celebrated Iranian cultural traditions pre-dating the nation's 1979 Islamic Revolution," he said. Iran's post-revolution clerical rulers have discouraged the observance of popular festivals and other cultural practices that they see as inconsistent with their fundamentalist view of Islam.
Noronha said there was especially high traffic for Farsi-language tweets on Trump's personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, which Twitter permanently suspended earlier this month citing perceived incitement to violence, a move denounced by Trump as an attempt to silence his free speech.
Trump tweeted in Farsi seven times during his presidential term, according to the Trump Twitter Archive, an online resource cited by U.S. news outlets. His first Farsi tweet, posted on February 11, 2019, got 65,000 likes and accused Iran's rulers of 40 years of corruption, repression, terror and failure as they marked the 40th anniversary of their revolution.
Trump's second Farsi tweet posted on January 11, 2020 contained a message in support of Iranian street protests against the Iranian military's downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane shortly after it took off from Tehran three days earlier. It was the most popular of his seven Farsi tweets, drawing 340,000 likes. Trump's message said: "To the brave and suffering people of Iran: I have stood with you since the beginning of your presidency and my government will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely. Your courage is inspiring."
Trump's January 11, 2020 Farsi tweet angered Iran's then-Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi, who responded the next day by tweeting : "Hands and tongues smeared with threatening, sanctioning and terrorizing the #Iranian nation, are not entitled to dishonor the ancient #Persian_language."
Trump also drew large audiences for English-language tweets pressuring Iran. His five most-liked Iran tweets in English, with 317,000 to 713,000 likes, were posted in January 2020, according to the Trump Twitter Archive. In the tweets, he hinted that Iran would face strong retaliation for military strikes on U.S. targets, vowed it will never have a nuclear weapon and warned it not to kill antigovernment protesters.
Earlier in his presidency, Trump also drew international attention for a November 2, 2018 tweet of an image or meme of himself superimposed with the message "SANCTIONS ARE COMING".
The text of the meme used a font popularized by American fantasy drama TV series Game of Thrones to highlight Trump's imminent restoration of U.S. sanctions against Iran after he withdrew earlier in the year from a 2015 deal in which world powers offered Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on its nuclear program. Trump said the deal did not do enough to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a goal Tehran denies having.
Nazenin Ansari, managing editor of Iranian news websites Kayhan London and Kayhan Life, told VOA Persian the Trump administration's social media outreach to Iranians built on Farsi social media channels that were created under the previous administration of Barack Obama.
"The Trump administration's social media messaging on Iran checked all the boxes by highlighting the Iranian public's grievances with the malign policy choices of the Islamic Republic," she said.
In a message to VOA Persian, Atlantic Council senior fellow Holly Dagres said she observed that some Iranian users of the Telegram messaging app were dismissive of Trump's tweets about Iran, mocking him for the Game of Thrones-style meme and accusing him of double standards for criticizing Iran's crackdowns on protests while tolerating what they viewed as harsh U.S. police treatment of some Americans who protested racial inequalities in the country last year.
Dagres also said the incoming Biden administration is likely to take a different approach to using Twitter for its Iran messaging. "It won't be angry tweets that threaten war or retweets of dubious accounts that tow the administration line. People will expect Biden's tweets to be more measured and to project soft power, such as by wishing Iranians a happy new year," she said.
Biden has promised to use diplomacy in coordination with U.S. allies to try to re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, if Tehran returns to compliance after conducting an escalating series of violations in response to Trump's 2018 pullout.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Alireza Nader told VOA Persian he fears the Biden administration will be so concerned about reviving the nuclear deal that it neglects to use social media to highlight human rights abuses in Iran.
"If the Biden administration wants to adopt a less aggressive posture toward Iran, they should at least use the social media tools that have already been developed to maintain communication with the people of Iran and show it cares about them," Nader said.
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service.