Blog August 13, 2020

#Covid1948: The Spread of an Anti-Israel Hashtag

An Investigation into a coordinated hashtag on Twitter.
graphic with corona viruses, stylized flags of Iran and Israel, and the hastag covid1948

In April 2020 a handful of Twitter users began posting tweets incorporating a very specific hashtag: #Covid1948. The hashtag framed the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 as a virus, suggesting that it has been deadlier for the Palestinian people than COVID-19. Though used on other platforms, this was largely a Twitter hashtag: as of July 9, the hashtag had been used 85,783 times on Twitter, but fewer than 700 times on public Facebook Pages and Groups and public Instagram accounts. In this post we analyze how the hashtag spread, highlighting the interplay between grassroots accounts that appear to have started it, a cluster of similar Iranian accounts that became involved, and prominent Iranian government and media accounts that were among its most potent amplifiers.

Key takeaways:

  • We identify a network of 507 Iranian accounts created between April 4 and 8, 2020, that appear to be real people, but that share a number of characteristics. 
  • Accounts that appear to originate in Nigeria and Pakistan, along with some of the Iranian accounts noted above, explicitly coordinated on the time and date of the use of the hashtag. 
  • Instagram posts with this hashtag that had the highest engagement came from Iranian state media and government accounts. The most popular tweets with the hashtag came from accounts linked to an Iranian conspiracy theorist.

 

The emergence of #Covid1948

The #Covid1948 hashtag began in April, but usage escalated in mid-May. It was first used on April 19, 2020, in a tweet by a Palestinian lawyer: “#VirusCorona and #isreal occupation are two faces of the same coin.” This tweet has since been deleted. The following day, the same text was tweeted by another Palestinian account, accompanied by infographics that used the hashtag.

mask
Figure 1: Early use of the #Covid1948 hashtag.

On May 3 the account @team_realists shared the hashtag, connecting it with Al Quds Day, an Iranian-initiated pro-Palestinian day of remembrance and protest. “Al Quds” is translated as “the holy one,” the Arabic name for Jerusalem. Soon after the first use of the hashtag, it was shared by a pro-Palestinian U.K. student group account and a number of other Palestinian activists.

team-realists-quds
Figure 2: An early use of #Covid1948 linking the hashtag to Al Quds Day.

team-realists-mobilize
Figure 3: The first tweet to mobilize social media users around the #Covid1948 hashtag.

On May 6, @team_realists tweeted the first formal call to action, encouraging the use of the hashtag on May 15. This date is significant: May 15, 1948, was the start of the first Arab-Israeli war. 

What is @team_realists? Its Twitter account says it is based in Pakistan and managed by Imamia Media House, the media department of Imamia Students Organization, a Pakistani Shiite student activist group. The “Links to Iran” section of the Imamia Students Organization Wikipedia page says the group “only receive [sic] moral guidance from Iran,” though previously the page said it received funding from Iran. The activities of the group are covered by several pro-Iranian state websites.

The meme it used, however, was branded with the iconography of the Global Quds Liberation Movement; that Twitter account, @g_q_l_m, is suspended, but it appears to have been active in May 2020.

The @team_realists tweet and image were tweeted repeatedly by Shiite activists in Pakistan and Nigeria. The hashtag mobilization took place primarily on Twitter; prior to May 15, the hashtag only appeared intermittently on Facebook and Instagram.

The mobilization was successful. On May 15, 53,697 tweets shared #Covid1948. The hashtag was used by Shiites in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere. According to Trendogate, it trended in countries including the U.S., Nigeria and Pakistan, though we note that Trendogate uses raw hashtag counts, which may not overlap with Twitter’s algorithm that determines trending hashtags. The Jerusalem Post wrote a story about the hashtag. The next spike in the number of posts with the hashtag came on May 21 and 22, during Al Quds Day.

post-volume
Figure 4: Number of #Covid1948 posts over time. The peak number of posts came on May 14 and 15 Pacific Daylight Time, which corresponds to May 15 in Iran. The plot labels the top four dates with the most tweets and the number of tweets on each of those dates.

The following graph shows users who tweeted #Covid1948 (red) and the accounts they replied to when using the hashtag (blue). Many of these latter accounts were likely the intended audience for the hashtag. Key accounts in this network include @IsraelPersian, the official Farsi page for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and @realDonaldTrump. We discuss another central node in this graph, @a_raefipour1, later in this post. At the time of writing this article, at least one of the central users, @SAYYID_HASSAN, was suspended by Twitter.

replies-network
Figure 5: Network of replies. Figure only includes hashtag user-target dyads that appeared at least three times in the data. Red accounts are the hashtag users; blue accounts are the accounts being “replied” to.

Cluster of similar Iranian accounts

In our analysis of accounts that used #Covid1948, we identified a cluster of accounts that shared several characteristics. Creation of accounts that used #Covid1948 spiked between April 4 and April 8, when 2,689 accounts were created that went on to use the hashtag. At least 507 of these accounts listed their location as Iran or a city within Iran. Twitter is banned in Iran, though many Iranians find ways to access the social platform through VPNs.

new-accounts

The spike in the number of new accounts coincided with a nationally televised speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on April 8. In that speech, Khamenei proactively pushed the narrative that the West was to blame for COVID-19. The speech, which marked the anniversary of Imam Mahdi’s birthday, linked the idea of Mahdi, the savior, to the need for a savior in the time of COVID-19 and in the face of Western “warmongering.” Mahdi is the twelfth Shiite imam who, according to Shiite Muslims, will return before the day of Judgement to rid the world of evil; mid-Sha’ban in the lunar calendar (coinciding with April 8 this year), is believed to be the birthday of Mahdi.

We investigated the accounts created between April 4 and April 8, focusing on those that listed their location as Iran. While the accounts appear to be linked to real Iranians, they had many similar features that suggest there may have been coordination between them. 

Similarities across 507 accounts:

  • An overwhelming number of posts from the accounts shared pro-Iranian regime content. 
  • The user description for many of the accounts mentions Mahdi or the “Promised Savior.” Twenty-one percent of the users in the group have a variation of “Mahdi” in their user description. Similarly, analysis of the tweets from the group shows that the third most-used hashtag was #thepromisedsaviour. 
  • Many of the accounts mention that their previous handles had been suspended, and list backup accounts in their profile in case their current handles are suspended.
  • Many of the accounts say they are students (and we believe this to be the case), though there is little overlap in stated discipline or university.
  • Many of these accounts tweeted copypasta, text copied and pasted from tweets initially posted by an Iranian individual, Aliakbar Raefipour. This will be discussed in depth in the section on Raefipour. 
  • The 507 accounts frequently retweeted the Supreme Leader and his views on the eventual demise of the United States. They also tweeted about the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., including retweeting the Supreme Leader discussing Black Lives Matter. Accounts used hashtags such as #Iran4Blacks, #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd. Another U.S.-related hashtag picked up and amplified by some members of the cluster was #calexit, which calls for the state of California to secede from the United States after the government’s use of violence against Black Lives Matter activists across the country.

 

blm-2-tweets
Figure 7: Left: Tweet from one of the 507 Iran accounts: “Imam Khomeini’s predictions about the collapse of the United States from within. The oppressed can no longer be oppressed by the superpowers. Now in America, too, the American people themselves do not accept what their leader is doing. Now the American people are outraged by this (Sahife-ye Imam, Volume 18, Page 323) #BlackLivesMatter” (translated). Right: Tweet from one of the 507 Iran accounts: “An American expert: Racism is part of American identity #Iran4Blacks” (translated).

khamenei-blm
Figure 8: Tweet from the Supreme Leader, retweeted by one of the 507 accounts.

Role of Iranian media and Iranian government officials 

Iranian state media and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei repeatedly shared #Covid1948 across social platforms and websites. The top-engagement Instagram posts with the hashtag came from the Iranian semi-official media agency Fars News and the Supreme Leader. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (@irimfa_en) tweeted the hashtag, and on May 9 Fars News wrote an article about the tweet. On May 26 the account facebook.com/ar.Khamenei.ir, linked to the website khamenei.ir, used the hashtag. The hashtag was used repeatedly by Alalam News (Iranian state TV), including once with a khamenei.ir image. @Tasnimnews_EN used the hashtag 12 times on May 22, and @TehranTimes79 used the hashtag once on May 20 and another time on May 25 as well; both are linked to the government.

khamenei-insta
Figure 9: An Instagram post from the Supreme Leader using #COVID1948.

tasnim-tehran
Figure 10: Iranian state media tweets using #Covid1948.

khamenei-fb
Figure 11: Facebook post from the Supreme Leader using the hashtag.

Aliakbar Raefipour and the Masaf Institute 

Aliakbar Raefipour and the Masaf Institute, which he founded, were influential in the spread of #Covid1948. Raefipour is an Iranian conspiracy theorist with bold ideas about satanism, freemasonry and Zionism; he claims to be a university lecturer and researcher “in the apocalyptic topics and cults.” The Masaf Institute’s aims are not clear, but the Institute has sponsored a cartoon contest on the “Zionist Caliphate.” Raefipour’s original Twitter account, @A_Raefipour, was suspended, but since then a number of other accounts have popped up under his name, including accounts in Farsi (@a_raefipour1), English (@raefipour_en) and Arabic (@Raefipour_AR), and another secondary account, @A_Raefipour2, that is meant to be used if the primary Farsi account is again suspended by Twitter. 

The tweet in the #Covid1948 dataset that received the most engagement came from @a_raefipour1 on May 14. A few minutes later, he posted the translation of this tweet on his Arabic and English accounts.

raef-tweet
Figure 12: The English version of Aliakbar Raefipour’s main tweet, which was widely retweeted and reposted by other users in the dataset.

As of July 9, the Farsi, English and Arabic versions of this tweet were collectively retweeted 10,700 times and favorited by 23,000 users. In addition to receiving thousands of retweets, the text of the tweets was reposted in original tweets by hundreds of users in each of the three languages. The English, Arabic or Farsi versions of the tweet were reposted at least 25 times by 15 of the 507 accounts. 

Figure 13 shows how influential Raefipour and the Masaf Institute were in the spread of the hashtag. Of the 15 users whose tweets used the hashtag and received the most engagement, at least six openly belonged to the Masaf Institute, Raefipour or his fans. Raefipour’s main account @a_raefipour1 posted four tweets with #Covid1948 and received a total of 13,100 retweets and 35,500 favorites.The other five accounts were @raefipour_en (Raefipour’s English account), @raefipour_AR (Raefipour’s Arabic account), @Mmahdaviat (a unit within the Masaf Institute), @masafiranian (Masaf Institute’s official page) and @Raefipourfans1.

highest-interactions
Figure 13: Users with the highest tweet engagement. Accounts in blue are openly connected to Raefipour and Masaf Institute.

We reached out to several Iran experts to inquire into the Masaf Institute and Raefipour. The Masaf Institute does not appear to be a prominent organization, though some experts knew of Raefipour as a conspiracy theorist and others described him as a propagandist with ties to extreme elements within the Iranian regime. We believe further research is warranted into the relationship between Raefipour and Iranian state social media campaigns.

Conclusion

#Covid1948 sheds light on the interesting interplay between grassroots activists, an unusual “institute,” Iranian state media, the Supreme Leader and Shiite organizations globally. We hope Iran experts will investigate accounts sharing this hashtag further, and better understand the role of Raefipour in amplifying pro-Iranian state agendas.

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