10/29/2014 04:42 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST

Iranians lingering on Canadian pro-democracy Web messages: government experts

OTTAWA - Millions of Iranians are viewing Canadian-generated, pro-democracy messages online and they're lingering on the content longer than your average web surfer.

That insight came Wednesday from two Foreign Affairs Department officials at a government and technology conference in Ottawa.

Their presentation offered new insight on the government's so-called digital diplomacy initiative, an attempt to use the Internet to engage directly with citizens of Iran and Syria — two countries where Canada has closed its embassies.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Tuesday he discussed Canada's digital diplomacy efforts in Iran with the visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as part of their broader discussion on how to combat the social media threats posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

Earlier this summer, Baird wrote in an opinion piece that the Iranian outreach, a joint effort with the University of Toronto, had reached 4.5 million unique users inside Iran.

Ian Anderson, a direct diplomacy officer at Foreign Affairs, told the conference that most of those visitors are spending longer than expected with the Canadian messaging, viewing content on human rights and Iran's future as a democracy.

"If somebody spends 30 seconds on a page, that's pretty good. Average eyeball-on-web-page times for us have been sometimes upwards of two or three minutes," Anderson said. "

"People have been engaging with significant amounts of content, about Canada's position, about ideas for Iran's future, that kind of thing."

Aaron Rodericks, the department's deputy director for direct diplomacy, said in some cases those Iranian visitors are spending significantly longer on some of the Canadian web pages.

Some visits have averaged as long as seven-and-a-half minutes per page, "which is just ridiculous," said Rodericks.

The government launched the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran in a partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, which has held online forums that target Iranians. The government and the university both measure the online impact of the project.

It was launched in May 2013 after Canada closed its embassy in Tehran the previous September and kicked its diplomats out of Canada, severing ties with the country.

Some critics have called on Canada to reopen the embassy as a way of engaging of with Iranians.

Anderson told the conference that in a country of 77 million people, the 4.5 million figure is significant.

"The way in which we define that is 4.5 million unique IP addresses from within Iran," he said.

"If you know the Iranian Internet environment, a lot of people use circumvention software to get around censorship. So it would be a very difficult thing to measure."

When the Munk School hosted its first online dialogue last year, Iranian authorities blocked access within hours, he said.

"Ultimately what it means is that because those platforms are blocked, those are 4.5 million people or devices, or people accessing those devices, participating in a political dialogue that wouldn't have existed otherwise without this," said Anderson.

"That's ultimately what we think is the most important aspect of it: we're creating political space for our audience to have discussions about issues like human rights, issues like religious freedom, that otherwise wouldn't exist."

In their meeting on Tuesday, Baird and Kerry discussed broader efforts to combat ISIL online. The group has used the Internet to distribute video of hostage beheadings, and to recruit foreign fighters, including Canadians, to their cause.

"We've got to take the battle on ISIL to try and ensure that we win the hearts and minds of people not, frankly, just in Syria and in Iraq, but to try to fight against the propaganda and myth that they seek to perpetrate," said Baird.

"Some of that has to be on the religious side and psychological side, but I think Canada has taken great efforts on digital diplomacy in tackling the regime in Tehran."

Kerry said the U.S. has a strategy for battling ISIL online, but he had no intention of discussing it publicly.

"But we will leave no effort untested with respect to our efforts to shut down the ability of these people to propagandize, to lie, to deceive, and to have a — whatever influence they may be able to have on young minds or other minds anywhere in the world."