Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 May 2020

Facebook suspends disinformation network linked to Iran's state media

Iranian disinformation campaigns linked to US Republican primaries and Scottish independence referendum

Social media operators are under pressure to halt the rising tide of fake news posted online. AP Images
Social media operators are under pressure to halt the rising tide of fake news posted online. AP Images

Iran’s state broadcaster used hundreds of fake social media accounts to covertly spread pro-Iranian messages since at least 2011, aimed at voters in countries including Britain and the US, Facebook said on Tuesday.

In a monthly report of accounts suspended for “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour”, Facebook said it removed eight networks last month, including one with links to the Iran Broadcasting Corporation.

Nathaniel Gleicher, the social media giant’s head of cyber-security policy, said the network had “substantial connections” to previously identified Iranian disinformation campaigns.

The state-owned broadcaster, the leadership of which is appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not respond to a request for comment.

Iranian officials have denied allegations of running co-ordinated disinformation campaigns.

Tehran has emerged as one of the most persistent players in online disinformation campaigns.

In 2018, an operation in Tehran used more than 70 websites pretending to be local news outlets to spread Iranian propaganda in more than 15 countries.

At one point, it tricked the Pakistani defence minister into issuing a nuclear threat against Israel.

Mr Gleicher said the newly identified network used similar tactics, posing as independent media websites and charitable organisations, to target countries from Algeria and Bangladesh to the UK and Zimbabwe.

The network used more than 500 accounts on Facebook and its photo-sharing site, Instagram, to spread messages often focused on local conflicts or criticism of US actions in the region.

This month, it was revealed that cartoons mocking US President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on Facebook and Instagram were linked to the Iranian regime-linked International Union of Virtual Media.

Some of the advertisments promoted conspiracy theories, including that Covid-19 was a biological weapon made by the US.

Researchers at social media analytics company Graphika, who reviewed the accounts before they were suspended by Facebook, said some of the earliest identified activity was aimed at the US Republican Party primaries in 2012.

Two years later, other accounts in the network spread disinformation to back Scotland’s referendum bid to secede from Britain, the researchers said.

“This whole takedown underlines how persistent the Iranian state is when it comes to covert influence operations,” Mr Gleicher said.

Updated: May 6, 2020 02:14 AM

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