The American drone strike that killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Iraq on Jan. 3 was a massive blow to the Islamic Republic — but also ensured misinformation got to major national media outlets in Iran.
Soleimani was seen as the mastermind behind Iran’s military campaigns in the Middle East. In the official statement made after the drone strike, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei promised a “hard revenge” against the United States, a phrase that became a popular refrain in Iranian media and among supporters of the Islamic Republic.
Early on Jan. 8, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched a missile strike on the Ain Al Asad military base used by American troops in Iraq. It was praised by the IRGC as “the fulfillment of an honest promise.”
The next morning, however, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. troops had not suffered any casualties from that strike.
“Our goal was not to kill any troops,” the IRGC aerospace commander stated in a press conference the following day. “However, we’re certain that scores would have been killed and wounded.”
At that time, it seemed that the damage done by the Iranian missiles hadn’t been enough for the regime to publicly sell the military campaign as the “hard revenge” it had promised. While this was the only report of the number of U.S. casualties announced by a major Iranian official, a powerful narrative emerged online.
Hours after the attack against the U.S. military base, Iran’s major news agencies ran a statement by the IRGC Intelligence Organization claiming the death of 80 U.S. soldiers as a result of the attack. However, this number has not been backed by any evidence. The fact that it has not been repeated elsewhere also suggests that this might have been a failed publicity stunt. In the following days, various pieces of disinformation tactics on social media popped up — and some of them were broadcast on state television as facts.
Doctoring a Newsweek article
Twenty-four hours after the Iranian missile strike, a Telegram channel created by people close to the IRGC published a screenshot of a Newsweek article about the missile strike. The image seemed accurate, except for a small detail: A line after the second paragraph stated read “at least 270 death toll have been reported so far.” The Telegram channel claimed that this line had been removed as a result of “heavy American censorship to cover up the massive casualties.”
The image was obviously doctored. The actual sentence published was “No casualties have been reported so far.” The bad English was not difficult to detect, and yet this was broadcast on Iran’s state television in various news segments as evidence.
We run Factnameh, a fact-checking organization based in Canada and focused on Iran. Our investigations found that the altered Newsweek screenshot was actually created by an Arabic pro-Islamic Republic Twitter account @Samous86 (the account is currently restricted), 1.5 hours before it appeared on the IRCC Telegram channel.
Despite all this, Iran state television still continued to refer to the Newsweek report as a fact, days after it had been debunked.
Fake Twitter account
A few hours after Iran’s strike, a Twitter account (@KhJacki_En) that appeared to belong to Israeli journalist Jack Khoury posted the following content: “According to reports received by Haaretz, a U.S. aircraft carrying American soldiers wounded by Iran’s missile strike on Ain Assad Air Base, landed in Tel Aviv hours ago. Based on informed sources, 244 injured soldiers were taken to Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center Hospital.”
This quickly spread on Persian social media. An hour later, Jack Khoury reacted to it on Twitter, denouncing this as a fake Twitter account that had since been suspended.
The fake account had been active since 2013, possibly under a different name and handle. Khoury had previously warned his followers about this fake account months earlier.
Fake DoD letter
Another piece of so-called evidence cited by Iranian State TV was a doctored Pentagon letter first published by Iraq’s Afagh Television. The letter was published on Afagh’s website, with a Department of Defense header addressed to Congressman Bernie Thompson for an apparent Freedom of Information Act inquiry. The purported letter claimed that, after a detailed examination by “DoD special investigative team,” the group found “139 deceased, 146 injured” as a result of the Iranian missile strike.
Thompson quickly denied that his office had received such a letter from the DoD or any inquiry from the Pentagon on his part. “The letter online is fake,” he published.
As is often the case for incidents like these, fake content continues to circulate despite strong evidence against it. Perhaps some conspiracy theorists will see the congressman’s denial as just another attempt to cover up the truth. In an article published by Factnameh, we offered several signs that prove the inauthenticity of this letter. First, had this been a government conspiracy, it would not have been made available through a FOIA request. Moreover, a member of the House of Representatives has better, more effective options to obtain information from the executive branch than to submit a FOIA request, typically used by journalists and ordinary citizens.
‘Alan’ on CSPAN
Perhaps the most interesting piece of misinformation seen lately was a clip from CSPAN’s “Washington Journal” show, which made its way to national news on Iranian television.
In the open call section of the show, “Alan” from Illinois calls with an Iranian accent and shares that he had not heard from his only child since the U.S. strike. His child had allegedly served as a soldier at the Ain Alasad air base. “The U.S. media has said there are no casualties there, but my only child… I don’t know if he is alive or if he is dead. Damn Trump! God damn Trump!”
The caller never mentioned his full name or the name of the missing son, which would have been the natural thing to do. Since then, he hasn’t reached out to any other media outlet, either.
This clip, which seems staged, was shared on social media platforms and broadcasted on Iranian national television as yet another evidence of U.S. deceit.
Is this an organized campaign of fake news? It’s very likely, we think.
The alleged Newsweek article, the Pentagon’s letter to a congressman, the Israeli journalist’s tweet and the anxious father of a soldier calling an American TV show all seem to follow the same trend of trying to appear as non-Iranian sources that Iranian media are simply reporting about.
Using a foreign source can be an effective tactic in convincing the average domestic audience in Iran into accepting a certain story — in this case the deadliness of Iran’s retaliation.
It might be difficult to say with certainty that Iranian state television is actively and deliberately participating in producing these falsehoods and forgeries, but its persistence in broadcasting them warrants suspicion.
Reza Moradi is a fact-checker and Farhad Souzanchi is an editor at Factnameh. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org