To hear Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tell it, Iran has an information problem. “I have repeatedly said, and repeat, that the enemy relies on misinformation and propaganda in its plans,” he explained ahead of the execution of a score of protestors earlier this month.
That followed a November speech claiming the “enemy is seeking to dominate minds” in which he inveighed against “fake news and analyses in the satellite channels and social media that belong to” the enemy and called for a “jihad of clarification.” On January 21, his personal website hosted an interview with a media professor to explain how “the enemy’s media outlets reshaped the truth in a way that the general public would have a different understanding of the truth — an understanding that is far from reality.”
The protests that are shaking the country, in the Supreme Leader’s telling, boil down to the dissemination and interpretation of information. And he’s right.
This is the second part of a four-part series on how information theory can help to explain authoritarian power. The opening piece introduced a framework for understanding propaganda based on the work of Claude Shannon, who pioneered the mathematics that underpins modern telecommunications. Shannon described the division of transmitters (with whom the message originates), channels (over which the message travels), and receivers (to whom the message is targeted.)
Rulers care about this. A lot. A ruler’s legitimacy depends on their ability, as a transmitter, to convince their population, the receiver, that they are rightfully in power. But this idea of legitimacy is not a simple proclamation, “I am legitimate.” Instead, it emerges from an ever-flowing complex of information, originating not just from the state or media but also from social interaction and lived experience. A state is therefore wise to encourage its population to accept a set of values, customs, and beliefs that makes it easier to accept information that supports the state’s legitimacy and harder to accept information that contradicts it.
Where the Ayatollah still exercises complete control of the tools for interpreting information —through media, the mosques, and the madrasas — he can continue to run the country aground while his loyalists blame the “US and Zionist regimes” for all their problems. But where that control frays, the reality of the regime’s incompetence and brutality is undeniable and protests and widespread resistance flourish.
The Iranian government invests heavily in channels to deliver its values and beliefs. Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB boasts a budget estimated at $900m-$1bn per year. Clergy on the state payroll reap over $100m per year. Any rival sources of information, from foreign journalists to popular opposition figures, face constant harassment, jail time, and worse.
For the conservative, religious, and rural heartland of Iran, the messages coming from IRIB and the clergy are easily assimilated. This traditional power base of the regime shares Shia identity and a drive for a strong and powerful Shia state with the Ayatollahs. And as mainly Persian speakers, the messages from Tehran not only face no linguistic barriers but easily fit into the presuppositions and worldviews of the audience.
But native Persian speakers constitute as little as 60% of the country and between a tenth and a quarter of the country is Sunni. Iran has invested little in reaching these minority groups. IRIB dedicates as many channels to Hausa, a language spoken in northern Nigeria, as to Kurdish and to Baloch — the two largest majority Sunni ethnic groups, together an eighth of the country. Across the border, meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan hosts dozens of Kurdish-language television networks. In contrast to the spoils lavished upon Shiite clerics, Sunni clerics find themselves prevented from repairing their mosques or building new ones. The tension is well-illustrated by protests in the Baloch heartland, which have regularly followed Friday sermons at Sunni mosques.
Meanwhile, in Tehran, tech-savvy young Iranians can circumvent regime safeguards to access BBC Persian or Radio Azadi, while personal connections to the diaspora enable the flow of uncensored information on the regime’s brutality. More secular-minded and aware of the West than their provincial compatriots, Tehranis are far less likely to accept the messages coming from the clerics. The damage done is recognized by the regime; a media professor invited onto Khamenei’s personal website decried “foreign-based Persian-language media outlets and the [sic] social media.”
Where Persian is not spoken, or where Shiism is not the dominant denomination, are therefore the places with the most protests and most brutal crackdowns, despite vast differences in economic conditions, religiosity, and ethnic makeup. The six provinces with the most protesters killed, according to watchdog Iran Human Rights, are: Balochistan i Sistan (majority Baloch), Kurdistan (Kurdish), West Azerbaijan (mostly Azeri but Kurdish in the south where the protests are concentrated), Tehran, Gilan (populated by a Caspian people whose language is related to Kurdish and bears some Georgian influence), and Mazandaran (where they speak a language close to that in Gilan.)
The continuing protests since the murder of the Kurdish blogger Mahsa Amini in September represent the most serious challenge to the regime’s legitimacy yet. Legitimacy, in its most basic form, is an idea, and a regime’s continued existence relies on its ability to replicate that idea in its population.
If that is now failing, the Ayatollah cannot simply blame an American-Saudi-Israeli-ISIS conspiracy; it has ultimately been his own choice to ignore this basic principle.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on how states manipulate the web.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.