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Why are Iranian web trolls targeting Malia Obama?

In Iran, prominent actors and sportsmen urge netizens to join a campaign to block trolls as online hate appears to increasingly spiral out of control.
U.S. President Barack Obama's daughters Sasha (L) and Malia arrive with their parents to board Air Force One for travel to Massachusetts for their annual vacation at Martha's Vineyard, from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTSLFBL

TEHRAN, Iran — In the middle of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Iranians thought a referee made a bad call against an Iranian wrestler that caused Iran to lose the chance of winning another medal. Soon afterward, the online hate began. It is unclear how or from where these attacks originated, but it appears that Iranian netizens know how to find the online pages of their enemies. In a very brief amount of time, the target’s page was bombarded with unpleasant comments.

Whenever something upsetting happens at a sporting event, Iranian netizens attack those who they believe are responsible for the unpleasant incident. Soon the person’s page crashes and becomes unavailable due to attacks from Iranian users. This trend has occurred repeatedly during the past few years. Ivan Zaytsev, the famous Italian volleyball player, became the target of these attacks, as did Polish volleyball players who had been unsportsmanlike during an Iran-Poland match. Referees also have been cyberattacked. The best example is probably the Serbian referee of the soccer match between Iran and Argentina in the 2014 World Cup who failed to call for a penalty in favor of Iran. There also was the Australian referee who gave a red card to an Iranian player during the Iran-Iraq match in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. The case of the Australian referee caused collateral damage, as Iranian users mistakenly attacked the webpage of a Maryland resident who had the same name as the referee.

In fact, this trend is not limited to personal webpages. Last month, a controversial decision was made by the judges and jury members during the over-105 kilogram (231 pound) weightlifting competition at the Rio Olympics, disqualifying Behdad Salimi. Furious Iranian netizens went as far as hacking the website of the International Weightlifting Federation itself.

This behavior is not necessarily always negative, as the active presence of Iranians in cyberspace has occasionally had positive results. For example, Academy Award winner Leonardo DiCaprio shared an image on his Instagram account of the drying Lake Urmia situated in northwestern Iran and asked for more international attention to the threat to this environmental treasure. In response, Iranian users posted 50,000 comments thanking the actor for his post.

However, from time to time, politicians — and even their family members — also join the list of victims of online hate alongside athletes and actors. US President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia is the latest victim of these types of attacks, after a fanpage for the first daughter was bombarded with negative comments. It is unclear how or even why she suddenly became the target of online trolls. Some of the comments were meant as a joke, while others were outright insulting, ultimately resulting in the page's administrator changing the page setting to private. This incident motivated some Iranian netizens to send direct messages to Malia, believing the account was hers, apologizing for the behavior of other Iranians in the hope of presenting a better image of Iran. 

However, the question is: What is the reason behind this kind of behavior? Ali Rasooli, a sociologist at the University of Tehran, told Al-Monitor, “The reason behind such actions could be a desire to be noticed on regional, national or international levels. Also, lack of proper training regarding these types of technology and methods of communication, and how they should be used, has helped initiate these types of abnormal behavior.”

The day-by-day increasing frequency and extent of this phenomenon has resulted in prominent artists and athletes in Iran asking people to put an end to this online trend. Twenty-five minutes into the France-Portugal game in the 2016 European Championship soccer final, the webpage of French national team player Dimitri Payet was full of negative comments from Iranian netizens. These online users, who believed Payet was responsible for injuring Cristiano Ronaldo, used the incident as an excuse to insult Payet. In the case of Payet, the behavior of the Iranian netizens was picked up abroad, with the Spanish newspaper AS running a story on it. Indeed, the online hate became so controversial that at the beginning of the second half of the match, famous Iranian soccer commentator Adel Ferdosipour asked viewers to stop insulting Payet online and repeated this request a few more times until the end of the game. Renowned Iranian actor Rambod Javan, who hosts a nightly TV program, has also repeatedly asked people not to engage in such shameful activities.

Others also have asked Iranian netizens to change their behavior. The well-known Iranian cartoonist Bozorgmehr Hosseinpour invited online users to a challenge regarding this issue on his Instagram page. He called on netizens to block those who use foul language in cyberspace, whether the insults are directed against celebrities or ordinary people.

Hosseinpour’s suggestion was immediately welcomed by a large number of Iranian netizens. Indeed, when reviewing the web profiles of celebrities, and especially Iranian celebrities, the number of insulting comments appear to have decreased. A large number of cultural and sports celebrities have also supported Hosseinpour’s challenge by sharing it on their own online profiles and asking people to join the initiative. Iranian soccer star Ali Karimi, rock singer Reza Yazdani and actress Ladan Tabatabaei are among those celebrities who have supported the initiative against online hate.

The question is whether these initiatives will fundamentally change the way people view this issue. Iranian psychologist and professor Maryam Rafiee told Al-Monitor, “These types of movements are effective, especially when supported by popular figures. However, this does not appear to be a definite solution. A more basic form of education at home, or school, can solve this problem more effectively.”

Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referenced Malia Obama’s Instagram account. The account is an unofficial fan-page.

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