Iraqi social media users are complaining that they have been bombarded with messages from troll farms that aggressively promote Iran's agenda and rebut all criticism of its ruling regime, activists told Diyaruna.
Hundreds of Twitter and Facebook users report they have been targeted by accounts using photos of the late Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qassem Soleimani or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Messages posted by these accounts, and other fraudulent accounts that appropriate photos of Iran-aligned religious figures, have threatened Iraqi users and bloggers, especially those taking part in the popular protests.
As Iran-backed militias operating in Iraq have stepped up their harassment of protestors on the ground, a parallel campaign has emerged online to undermine activists and flood them with threatening comments.
Controlling narrative online
These "electronic armies" attempt to discredit the protestors and present a false narrative of the attacks through fabricated news and photos, activists report.
They also target bloggers, and seek to negatively influence trending hashtag campaigns, especially those related to the security and political situation, in order to influence public opinion, IT engineer Ahmed al-Obeidi told Diyaruna.
One example of a hashtag campaign that has come under attack from online trolls is, "Where are they", he said, which seeks to raise awareness about Anbar residents abducted by the Kataib Hizbullah and Harakat al-Nujaba militias.
Demands for domestic violence legislation that grants women the freedom to raise a complaint and request protection also have been targeted, al-Obeidi said.
Some Iraqi users have seen their accounts hacked or have received threats because they criticized Iran and its negative role in Iraq, or the violations committed by Iran-backed militias, he said.
Through these actions, the militias seek to "wrest control of the narrative on social media and render these platforms less effective in exposing Iran's role in Iraq and that of the militias", he added.
According to Dhi Qar activist Ahmed Haqi, who co-ordinates demonstrations in al-Nasiriyah's al-Habboubi square, these social media accounts are set up by militiamen operating on the ground.
He expressed hope that these accounts would be shut down, "as they prevent Iraqis from following the news and obtaining factual information", noting that some Iraqis also fear voicing their opinions.
Reporting fraudulent accounts
Ghaith Ahmed, who is part of a volunteer youth group that counters these "electronic armies", said the militia-aligned users are "armed with prefabricated accusations and are ready to attack and distort the truth".
They attack social influencers by using fabricated images that can easily be discredited, he told Diyaruna.
Ahmed, who asked to use a pseudonym out of concern for his safety, said that these users agree on attack lines to use via Telegram and WhatsApp.
They propagate messages that glorify Iran and claim that the Iraqi people stand by Iran or promote a pro-Iranian stance, he said.
Ahmed and his fellow volunteers recommend that Iraqi social media users report to Twitter or Facebook any account that has a profile picture of Qassem Soleimani or any Iran-aligned militia leader.
He expressed his hope that through these efforts, the accounts might be taken down, so social media can remain a "space for people to speak freely and express their opinions, without verbal attacks or fear of retribution".