The man behind dozens of fake news websites in Iran is a member of the Basij militia, one of the forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to a new report from the Israeli company ClearSky Cyber Security.
The websites are built to resemble Western media outlets, including BBC Persian and RFE/RL’s Persian language service, Radio Farda.
In its report, which was published in February and titled “Ayatollah BBC,” ClearSky confirmed a man named Alireza Javid Arabshahi is the name to which about 50 websites either imitating or disparaging Western media outlets are registered.
RFE/RL reported on the launch of the fake sites in 2011 and attributed them to Arabshahi, but ClearSky’s report revealed that he works for the Basij, which is known to engage in harassment of Western journalists.
Arabshahi lives in the city of Gonabad in the Khorasan Razavi province in eastern Iran, and claims to be working for the Iranian Ministry of Communication in his public profiles.
The report, however, quotes other sources who say he is a member of the Basij, and has worked for several radical politicians, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The report includes several photos of Arabshahi, including one that shows him carrying a "Death to America" poster at an anti-Israeli rally
Among the websites registered to Arabshahi is one called “Radio Dirooz.” Dirooz in Persian means “yesterday,” a spoof of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, which means “tomorrow.” The website carries the Radio Farda logo and publishes fabrications about the personal lives of Farda staff. It describes their work as Western propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The content of the website is designed explicitly to harass and intimidate Radio Farda’s staff members working in Prague, Czech Republic, as well as their family still in Iran and colleagues working in other locations.
“We estimate that the main objective of the operation is to undermine the credibility of Western media outlets in the eyes of Persian speakers, presenting them as driven by a political agenda and acting against the Iranian regime,” the ClearSky’s report reads, adding that many of the fake websites have high rankings in search engines like Google and Yahoo.
ClearSky also says Arabshahi’s fake websites have fooled Western researchers and legitimate media outlets in the past. The company cited an Amnesty International report on the persecution of human rights activists inside Iran that referenced false reports taken from the fake websites bbcpersian.net and ma-hastim.com. The report was posted on the U.S. Department of Justice website.
Due to severe censorship and the lack of independent media in Iran, foreign based media outlets reporting in Persian, including Radio Farda, are among the most reliable sources of information for Iranians. Because they report critically on the regime, there are concerted efforts traceable to the authorities to cast doubt on the credibility of these outlets.