WASHINGTON — The State Department said Wednesday it has terminated support for an online project aimed at fighting Iranian disinformation after it tweeted harsh criticism of individual human rights workers, academics and journalists, some of whom are U.S. citizens.
Lea Gabrielle, the head of the department’s Global Engagement Center, said at a congressional hearing that funding for an outside contractor that ran the @IranDisinfo Twitter feed has been eliminated. The funding had been suspended last month pending a review of the tweets in question. Gabrielle told the House Appropriations Subcommittee that the review determined the tweets violated the terms of the State Department’s agreement with the contractor.
“The intent was to unveil Iranian disinformation,” she said, adding that the tweets “were not in the context that was intended. They were outside the scope of the agreement that we had.”
“We have since terminated our agreement with that implementer,” Gabrielle said. “It was never the intent of the Global Engagement Center to have anyone tweeting at U.S. citizens.”
She did not say exactly when the agreement was canceled or how much money the contractor had received.
When its funding was suspended in June, the year-old account had a modest audience of fewer than 2,000 followers. At least some of those followers are fierce opponents of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from which President Donald Trump withdrew last year.
The suspension came after several people targeted by @IranDisinfo pointed out what they called harassment by a U.S. government-linked account. They suggested they were being targeted for criticizing or questioning the Trump administration’s hard-line stance on Iran.
Among those criticized by the now-deleted tweets were a researcher for Human Rights Watch, a Washington Post columnist, a BBC journalist and a professor at Georgetown University, according to Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American commentator who was also targeted and has been outspoken on the matter.
“This is great news for democracy and rule of law but it is not enough,” Mortazavi said Wednesday. She said other projects run by the same contractor should also be reviewed to ensure their compliance with the standards.
The Global Engagement Center was created by Congress to run online efforts to combat extremism. That portfolio was later expanded to include fighting foreign government propaganda, particularly from Russia, after Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, in part by using social media.