As protests in Iran head into their ninth day, those in the streets have received words of support from President Donald Trump and words of ire from the country’s theocratic government. In the recesses of the internet, however, the far right are split, asking themselves — are the protests the result of a coup orchestrated by George Soros and Barack Obama’s "deep state," or a repudiation of it? The debate, raging from Twitter to YouTube and the white-supremacist-preferred Gab social network, has exposed ideological divides within the far-right political movement that helped propel Trump into office.
At least 21 people have died in the crackdown in Iran, as Tehran moves against the thousands of protesters who have been in the streets for more than a week in the largest set of demonstrations since 2009.
The protests have drawn an array of support from across the US and international political spectrum, even providing a rare opportunity for President Trump, who promised “great support” for the people of Iran, to agree with former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who lauded the demonstrators for “protesting for the freedom and future they deserve.”
On Dec. 30, just as protests began to spread throughout the country, even reaching some of the more conservative middle-class cities from where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei draws his support, far-right figure Stefan Molyneux published a YouTube video where he tearfully called on his followers to stand behind the Iranian protesters.
In the nearly 20-minute video, Molyneux — the Canadian podcast host whose blend of anti-feminism and libertarian philosophy has been described as a cult — implored his followers to support the protesters however they can.
He was joined by a variety of other far-right figures in boosting the Iranian protesters’ cause. Mike Cernovich, for his part, accused the mainstream press of defending the regime, taking aim at one CNN story on the anti-government protests, which used a photo of pro-government demonstrations that was removed shortly after. (For that, Cernovich wrote that CNN “literally a propaganda outlet for the Iranian regime,” although CNN corrected the story within hours.) Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson championed the protests as being anti-hijab, although he relied on a misleading image to do so. Many other figures blasted the mainstream press for failing to cover the protests, even as they were being widely covered by nearly every outlet in the US and abroad.
But that’s where the consensus among the group ends. White nationalist Richard Spencer, for one, spent the last week retweeting messages that said the protests were “deep state approved,” concluding that since the protesters were being cheered on by establishment figures like John McCain and Hillary Clinton, the demonstrations must therefore be the tool of “American empire.”
Spencer’s wife, Nina Kouprianova, a far-right Twitter figure in her own right who often touts a consistent pro-Kremlin line, also put forward a theory that DC is behind the protests.
Cernovich, in an email to BuzzFeed News, took aim at Spencer’s read of the situation that “Jews are behind the Iranian protests.”
“Like most of the alt-right, he sees what they call ‘zio puppets’ everywhere,” says Cernovich, who has tried to distance himself from the harder edges of the alt-right movement. “Why people care what he thinks is beyond me,” he added.
Roosh V, a pickup artist, rape apologist, and men’s right activist who is himself part Iranian, tweeted on New Year’s Day: “I need the red pill on why the alt lite has the same interventionist position on Iran as establishment neocons.” The term “alt lite” has become popular for the more extreme members of the movement in recent months, and has been used to call out media personalities who have tried to shave off the hard edges of the alt-right.
More conservative far-right figures have tended to oppose the US's involvement in the world more broadly, decrying most foreign policy as “interventionist.”
A variety of responses to Roosh V took him up on his request, with some openly anti-Semitic answers contending both sides serve the “(((same masters))),” as one put it, using far-right code to signify a Jewish name.
Some corners of the far right have fallen back on a familiar enemy — George Soros, the Hungarian-American investor and progressive political activist who has been accused of everything from funding the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, to orchestrating a chemical weapon attack in Syria.
Infowars host David Knight made the call on Tuesday during his three-hour show: “One of the people involved in this, from the very beginning … was George Soros.”
To back it up, Knight cited an article in Foreign Policy, which he calls “the journal of the new world order.” He appeared to be confusing Foreign Policy, a well-respected magazine, with the Foreign Policy Journal, the small opinion website that actually published the article in question. That journal concluded that Soros was behind uprisings in Iran, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia, although the author, Edmund Berger, merely offered as proof the fact that Soros’s Open Society Foundations provided some grant money to civil society in those countries. (The organization has not run any programming in Iran since at least 2010, when Tehran effectively banned international organizations from working in the country.)
Knight then linked Soros to Obama’s State Department and delved into an increasingly common trope for the far right: that the protests in Iran, like popular uprisings in other countries, were “color revolutions.”
While the phrase refers to the common practice of affixing a color (or sometimes the name of a flower or material) to spontaneous pro-democracy uprisings around the world, dating back decades — Velvet, for Czechoslovakia in 1989; Orange, for Ukraine, in 2004; Jasmine, for Tunisia in 2010 — it has also become a favorite refrain for the Kremlin, which has accused the US of being behind democracy protests in the post-Soviet space. Moscow-owned news sites like Sputnik have also pushed the notion that Soros was behind the color revolutions, and has most recently tried to blame the protests in Iran on UK intelligence, as well as the US and Saudi Arabia.
That narrative aligns with what the government in Tehran is also saying — Iranian public prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri pointed the finger on Thursday at the CIA, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as responsible for the protests — and has been amplified by state-run outlets like PressTV.
“From the very top, we have Ayatollah Khamenei saying that the protests, this uprising, came from … foreign powers,” said Alireza Nader, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation who specializes in Iran. That doesn’t mean people are buying it, he said: “Even his own supporters know that's not true.”
As a broadcaster, PressTV is largely marginal in the West (“I don't think it's really that successful,” Nader said.) It was yanked from the airwaves altogether in the UK after regulators found that its coverage was largely dictated by Tehran, and that it had aired the coerced statement of an Iranian-Canadian journalist and activist Maziar Bahari.
But PressTV, like RT and Sputnik, has found the internet to be more fertile ground, especially among those who, like the harder edge of the far right, are intensely skeptical of their own governments.
Sites like the Centre for Research on Globalization and Veterans Today have recently published a raft of material questioning whether these so-called color revolutions are being orchestrated from the White House. Kouprianova, Spencer’s wife, tweeted a similar blog post. These sites, while more left-leaning in nature, frequently publish articles that echo the anti-government lines taken by the far right. The authors of several of these articles are also frequent contributors to PressTV (which can pay handsomely).
One prolific writer for many of these sites, who published posts blasting then-candidate Hillary Clinton and questioning the intelligence that has implicated the Syrian regime in numerous chemical weapons attacks, is currently under investigation by the FBI for the possibility that she may, in fact, be a Russian agent.