As an Iranian American journalist in exile, I’m used to online attacks. But I didn’t expect the State Department to fund them


The Iran Disinformation Project, funded by US taxpayer dollars, repeatedly used its social media accounts to attempt to discredit me. And I wasn’t their only target

Negar Mortazavi
Washington DC
The Independent Voices

Many in Trump’s administration have taken a hard line on Iran, especially John Bolton, who is known for his often hawkish stance ( EPA )

I recently found out that I am being smeared through an operation funded by the US Department of State. The “Iran Disinformation Project” launched in 2018 with American taxpayer money to expose and counter Iranian government propaganda. But as I broke the news last week, the project has also been smearing human rights activists, academics, and journalists, including myself, who criticize the Trump administration’s hardline policies on Iran.

As an Iranian-American journalist living and working in exile, I am used to all forms of online attacks by Iranian government-sponsored trolls. I just never expected to also be attacked by the US government.

After I joined Voice of America, a US-government funded television program that broadcasts via satellite into Iran, I started getting attacked by hardline trolls sponsored by the Iranian government. They have tried for years to use lies to smear my reputation, discredit my work, and even hack into my email and social media accounts. They have created fake blogs and profiles in my name and published false information to damage my credibility. They have spread fabricated rumors about my life to put psychological pressure on me and my family. They have called me an agent of the United States, a lover of Imperialism, and a self-hating Iranian who sold her country to the Great Satan. Because of my journalism work at VOA, my family was harassed and pressured in Iran.

Now, just a few years after leaving Voice of America, the US government has funded an operation that continues this harm. The Iran Disinformation Project repeatedly used its social media accounts, on Twitter and Telegram, to attack me. And I wasn’t their only target. Iran Disinformation Project accounts attacked other journalists, including Jason Rezaian at the Washington Post and Bahman Kalbasi and his colleagues at the BBC. Kasra Naji, a Senior Correspondent for BBC Persian in London, tweeted of the project: “These people smeared me and my colleagues and our channel, accusing us of being supporters of the Iranian regime, trying to discredit us. Used threats and shocking language to do what Iranian government was also doing.”

The Iran Disinformation Project also attacked professors at Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, and Southern Florida university who provide nuanced views on Iran and criticize Trump’s policy of maximum pressure. They attacked American civil society and non-governmental organizations that promote peace and diplomacy with Iran and oppose the march to war. Iran Disinformation even attacked a researcher for Human Rights Watch because she was looking into the human cost of US sanctions in Iran.

Sarah Morgon, the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “US taxpayer dollars being used to attack and smear independent analysis as well as the people (my colleague) doing this work. Move over Sisi and Orban, State Department wants to share this shameful stage.”

US House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff on Iran

One day after I broke the story, the State Department acknowledged that some tweets fall outside the scope of the project and suspended funding until the implementer ensures that future activity remains within that agreed scope. That’s great — but it’s not enough. We now need further details about how these sustained attacks happened over the course of a few months. Who created the target list? Who approved the smear messaging? What was the level of involvement from the State Department itself?

A former State Department official who is familiar with this area told me this week: “Using State Department, US taxpayer money to attack American citizens, human rights organizations, and journalists from around the world is not public diplomacy. It is a disgrace and it puts real people in danger.”

This scandal came to the spotlight over the past few days and now members of Congress are inquiring about it. Democratic members of the House of Representatives have asked for a briefing from the State Department next Monday. Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California tweeted that: “This is unacceptable and we will not stand for it”, and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar called it “a shocking abuse of power.”




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