How the right-wing response to Iran set the stage for 2020’s misinformation campaign

Via Saghar Erica Kasraie's YouTube

Earlier this year—before the pandemic, before the mass protests across the United States—another crowd gathered, this time in Tehran, Iran. They were attending the funeral of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, who had been killed by US forces. 

The reaction to Suleimani’s killing from some online right-wing activists set the stage for the floods of misinformation that would follow in this tumultuous year. And it began when a woman named Saghar Erica Kasraie posted a video on Facebook entitled “Truth from an Iranian.”

“I am Iranian American,” the forty-two-year-old Kasraie said into the camera on January 6. “I have spent the last twelve years of my life as a human rights activist working on Iran policy, watching the Middle East.” 

Soon she cuts to the chase. The US media, she says, had been serving as little more than a propaganda machine to glorify Suleimani. But real Iranians, she said, were so happy with President Donald Trump’s decision to kill the general that they were “baking cakes [and] giving out cookies.” 

“They don’t hate America, they don’t hate Donald Trump,” said Kasraie. “I’m probably going to lose a lot of friends for saying this, but thank you, Mr. Trump.”

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The video spread quickly on conservative and pro-Trump websites and YouTube channels and across social media platforms. A representative sample of the thousands of viewer comments:  

“The media is the biggest problem in the United States.”

“Propaganda is all we see on the news.”

“Trump once again proved that he is the greatest president of all time.”

“The lying media is attempting to control the opinions of Americans.”

Kasraie soon became the darling du jour of the conservative media, appearing on One America News, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Fox News twice (on Fox and Friends as well as Laura Ingraham’s The Ingraham Angle). “The media has the moral responsibility to speak truth and be objective and allow the American people to think for themselves,” she said on The Joe Pags Show, a conservative talk radio show. 

The Facebook video hit 5.6 million views on YouTube alone. Across all social media platforms, the number is about 11 million views, Kasraie says—equivalent to four nights of combined prime-time viewership for CNN and MSNBC, and double the number of digital subscribers to the New York Times

You can find the same kinds of videos supporting nearly everything the president has done since Suleimani’s killing. Trump’s response to the pandemic, for instance, or to the protests that have followed the police killing of George Floyd, looks very different to the millions of Americans who get their news from such comforting online videos. (Like the film Plandemic, which said that a shadowy cabal was using the pandemic for its own gain.)

They make up an alternate media ecosystem—one that many Americans seem to prefer to more traditional journalism, and one that will likely be pivotal in moving voters who skew older, and right, come this November. 

Millions of people, their emotions affirmed, accept videos like Kasraie’s as gospel. But the true sources behind them are often obscure, and the information they furnish is little more than medieval myth. I decided to find out how much of “Truth from an Iranian” was really true.

 

KASRAIE’S FAMILY FLED IRAN after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when she was a small child. She is a born-again Christian and says that seeing what has happened to her nation makes her heart “burst.” Her driving motivation, she says, is to see the regime there toppled.   

She tells me she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but turned against him when he “engaged the regime” in talks, a move she says disheartened the Iranian opposition. Since that time, her résumé shows that she’s been involved with several hawkish, right-wing political groups. 

Kasraie served as a staffer for Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), a Tea Party member and major critic of the Iran nuclear deal who once introduced a resolution to authorize the use of military force against the country, prior to his December 2017 resignation after an investigation began into sexual harassment accusations made against him. 

She supports Trump, but says she disagrees with much of what he says and does, and “hates” the wall. Still, her Facebook page is filled with photos of her posing happily with Trump officials including Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pompeo, Ben Carson, and Sean Spicer. Another photo shows her in formal attire at a Trump inauguration gala. 

Last year, as first reported by BuzzFeed, Kasraie worked for the Libyan National Army, which is engaged in a civil war in that country. The LNA is led by Commander Khalifa Haftar, a former Moammar Qaddafi official who defected to the United States in the 1980s. Haftar is a staunch anti-Islamist whose militia is involved in a bloody assault on Tripoli.

“I was a part-time consultant,” says Kasraie. “I did research on Libya and I did research on congressional offices that would be interested in meeting these guys. I didn’t see it as an affiliation.”  

Both the United Nations and Amnesty International have alleged that Haftar’s forces may have committed war crimes involving assaults on civilian neighborhoods, as well as summary executions.

Kasraie currently works as the “human rights director” for the Victor Marx Group, a conservative Christian ministry that does outreach in the Middle East. Especially relevant to her viral video, though, was her work in 2018 for a small conservative think tank called America Matters. There she worked with David Reaboi, who now serves as a sort of unofficial social media attack dog for Trump and remains one of Kasraie’s closest associates in Washington. Reaboi describes himself on social media as a consultant specializing in “political warfare” and a “right-wing Twitter pugilist.” He also serves as a senior vice president at a think tank called the Security Studies Group which has supported the Trump administration’s ban on travel from certain majority-Muslim nations and advocated for military action in Iran. Previously he worked for onetime Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.”

The day after Kasraie posted the video, Reaboi gave it a big boost by tweeting it out. While Kasraie didn’t have a Twitter account at the time, Reaboi has more than sixty-six thousand followers. His posting received twenty-eight thousand retweets, including one by Donald Trump Jr., which was crucial in spreading it across the Trumpian social media landscape. “Then it went crazy, I guess,” Kasraie says.  

She insists that while Reaboi, who declined a request for comment for this article, propagated her video, and is someone “who has my back,” neither he nor anyone else was involved in its production. She says she was inspired to make the video after hearing from a few friends who were concerned about the Suleimani killing. 

“I turned my phone on inside my home and said what came out of my heart,” she says. “It wasn’t rehearsed, my friend, and that’s why it went viral. People got to put a human face on an issue.”

I asked her if she thinks the video would have had the same impact if, instead of describing herself as a “human rights activist,” she had disclosed that she worked for a Tea Party politician, was aligned with a “right-wing Twitter pugilist,” and had done some consulting work for an anti-Islamic warlord. 

“Woulda, woulda, woulda,” said Kasraie. “I answer to God at the end of the day. I know I’m doing the right thing by being truthful.”

 

KASRAIE TOLD ME that 90 percent of the Iranian population was opposed to both the regime and Suleimani when the US military killed him. And that basic contention was clearly key to the appeal of her video: Trump supporters, judging by their comments, were thrilled to hear an Iranian asserting that the president had only followed the wishes of her people when he ordered the general killed.

But there is no evidence to back up that claim. It is, in fact, contradicted by a comprehensive University of Maryland study released in October that found Suleimani was by far the most popular political figure in Iran, with an 82 percent approval rating. 

Kasraie is also vehement that her claim, made in the video, that the people of Iran overwhelmingly support Trump is accurate. But the same study shows that Trump is no hero in Iran, either. It found that 86 percent of surveyed Iranians have negative views toward America under the current president, the highest level recorded in thirteen years. In 2015, when the nuclear deal was signed by Obama, that number was nineteen points lower, at 67 percent. 

Eric Lob, a professor at Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Affairs and an expert on Iranian politics, says Suleimani’s popularity was due in part to his recent success in fighting isis in Iraq and Syria (along with US forces). As for Trump, Lob says a “small segment of the population” supports him, but that he’s largely unpopular in the country for what seem obvious reasons: his pulling out of the nuclear deal, the institution of the travel ban, and the ratcheting up of “maximum pressure” sanctions on the country. 

“It’s everyday Iranians who are suffering from these sanctions, who can’t get food and medicine to live a productive life,” he says. “A lot of Iranians supported the nuclear agreement. They don’t want to be a pariah state or a rogue state. They want positive relations with the international community.” 

The same UM study found that 90 percent of the Iranian population wants to take part in world affairs. But Kasraie rejects the study’s findings out of hand. “You’re talking about a totalitarian government,” she says. “There’s no freedom of the press. I’ve never trusted any polls that have been done because [the Iranian people] are afraid of repercussions.” But when told that the same study showed Iranian president Hassan Rouhani had an approval rating south of 50 percent, Kasraie admitted the 90 percent figure might not be accurate and amended it to a “majority.”

Even a cursory look at the American coverage of Suleimani’s death shows that her claims that the mainstream media glorified Suleimani and “mourned” his death are spurious. But exposing such inaccuracies is moot now; the video has already reached its audience, and biases have already been confirmed. 

I did ask Kasraie whether she had any qualms about besmirching legitimate journalists covering the Middle East. “If that is what you deduced, please forgive me,” she answered. “In no way did I want to diminish the work of true journalists. In no way would I diminish the people who risk their lives to tell the true stories.

“But the average Americans…they don’t go out and pursue the truth,” she continued. “They’ll make their own opinions. Do you really believe that the average person that lives in Alabama gives a damn about reading the New York Times?”

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Correction: This article has been updated to provide more precise details of the positions advocated by the Security Studies Group. 

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Bob Norman has covered crime and corruption in southern Florida for 25 years. He's currently working as a freelance journalist.