Peter Hasson at the Daily Caller has penned an interesting report on an Iranian effort to interfere with America’s immigration debate. This report gives us as Americans an excellent opportunity to examine an effort to manipulate us for someone else’s ends.
First, we should understand the intent of the effort. If the facts are as described, this may be an organic effort by Iranian expatriates rather than an official Iranian government effort. Whereas Russian propaganda efforts seek to advance a national interest of theirs by dividing the American people, thus making us less capable of concerted action, this effort seems to advance only a narrow interest of Iranian expatriates. Specifically, as visa holders within the United States who would like to be elevated to permanent resident status, they would like to maintain existing laws that prevent more than four percent of any year’s new permanent residents from originating in a given country. This would allow these Iranian nationals to obtain green cards faster than if those caps were lifted, as a very large number of Indian nationals are ahead of them in line. Only the per-year cap is preventing the Indians from obtaining green cards years before the Iranians. Potentially the Iranian government is also involved, in order to maintain an ability to slip more of its nationals into America over the years. On its face, though, it appears simply be an organic effort by these expatriates. (It is not the purpose of this paper to take a position on the immigration legislation before Congress, only to discuss the propaganda effort.)
Second, we should understand how these propagandists seek to manipulate us. To be effective, propaganda has to seem authentic. This effort has the advantage of drawing on Iranian nationals already within the United States, on student visas and the like. They have been directly observing American culture, and have a sense of how to talk to Americans effectively. Hasson’s report suggests that they may still be somewhat clumsy in spite of this experience, using “usernames that read like foreign stereotypes of American names” such as “Madonna Smith” or “Ted_MAGA.” But others modified their names to sound more American, as from “Hossein” to “Hudson.” This is reminiscent of the way that an earlier generation of immigrants Anglicized names from Eastern or Southern Europe. Even “Madonna Smith” is echoed by John Feeney’s modification of his Irish surname, giving us the legendary American director John Ford. The two chosen names are iconic expressions of Americana for their era, and effective in the same way.
To be effective, a propagandist has to understand the target audience. Here is where we can learn lessons about ourselves that may not be obvious to us. One striking fact is that the Iranian guidelines to propagandists warn against racist language. According to the report, “One of the group administrators, Muhammad, wrote out a detailed list of instructions for new members, such as to avoid ‘racist content’ and the ‘hard right’ on Twitter.” This shows a clear-eyed grasp of the American political landscape that has eluded much of our own media. The second “Unite the Right” rally drew only two dozen people from across the nation; counter-protesters outnumbered them by more than two orders of magnitude. This is a pattern that has held for years. The Iranian propagandists thus did not target this tiny fringe, accurately seeing it as unrepresentative of the wider American right.
What the propagandists do instead of appealing to overt racism and the hard right is to build verbal appeals built on retaining jobs in America for Americans, combined with visuals that hint at large-scale invasions of strangers. One such visuals captured in the report shows an Indian train that is so full of workers that they are hanging off the outsides of the train and riding on the roof. Another uses a Trojan Horse image to suggest that an invasion of large numbers of people is hidden in a jobs-related immigration bill. This suggests that the propagandists believe that Americans may have subconscious fears of being overwhelmed by foreigners, but that such concerns will tend to be verbalized in terms of jobs and wages. Critics of the American right will argue that the effectiveness of such imagery amounts to proof that the right is subconsciously racist; advocates for the American right will argue that the concerns about jobs and wages are perfectly legitimate on their own, and should not be dismissed by speculation about what may or may not lurk in the subconscious.
From the perspective of analyzing the propaganda, however, it is worth noting how it skillfully combines what is factual and provable with emotional appeals. For anyone who wishes to avoid being manipulated by propaganda, the existence of such emotional appeals should be a red flag — whether or not one approves of the emotion being conjured.
SSG’s article on Russian propaganda ended with a section called “How to Avoid Being Played.” It is worth noticing that the Iranian effort here has an advantage that the Russian effort lacks. The Russian effort is finally controlled by a centralized government bureaucracy, and thus lacks the flexibility of organic efforts. This appears to be an organic effort, which is therefore highly adaptable to the American debate. It is in that sense more likely to succeed in moving the needle of American politics.
The other two points, however, remain valid. It is important to be open to having your ideas challenged. However, it is most important to argue based on facts and principles, and avoid emotional appeals. As the article on Russia says, this is also true of relationships. Human beings are fairly tribal, and respond to the sense that someone is ‘one of us’ or ‘on our side.’ The adoption of names like “Hudson” or “Madonna Smith” (or “John Ford”) shows how easy it is to slip a foreign interference in simply by adopting the symbols of the tribe — even if it is done in a heavy-handed way.