Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Iran-linked media operation spread fake news about Saudi Arabia

Researchers say Endless Mayfly impersonated genuine online outlets to create pro-Iran news

Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has previously slammed Twitter's decision to close accounts of real Iranians. Reuters
Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has previously slammed Twitter's decision to close accounts of real Iranians. Reuters

A network of fake online personas and bogus websites that impersonated well-known news outlets to spread propaganda that cast Saudi Arabia and the United States in a bad light is likely linked to Iran, researchers have found.

The disinformation operation, which authors called Endless Mayfly and ongoing since at least early 2016, also pitched stories to genuine journalists in an effort to further its traction. Overall, 135 inauthentic articles, 72 domains and 11 online identities were linked to Endless Mayfly, according to a team from the University of Toronto.

The fake articles would pretend to be real websites such as The Guardian, The Atlantic and Politico often by subtle spelling changes in the address. As a result, other legitimate organisations would catch on and report the story despite it being fake.

For example, Reuters was forced to retract a story that six Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, had written to FIFA asking that Qatar be stripped of hosting the 2022 football World Cup. It was based on a report carried by an impersonation of Swiss website The Local.

Accounts linked to the network were closed down in August 2018 by social media networks following an investigation by cybersecurity firm FireEye although Endless Mayfly itself is still active.

“Based on the evidence gathered from our investigation we conclude with moderate confidence that Endless Mayfly is Iran-aligned,” the report said

“This level of confidence is based on the overall framing of the campaign, the narratives used, and indicators from overlapping data in other reports,” it added.

Crucially, the report was unable to find content that directly or indirectly cast Iran negatively.

Researchers also found evidence of what they coined “ephemeral disinformation,” where once a fake story gains traction online it is deleted with links then directing to the genuine domain being impersonated

“This technique creates an appearance of legitimacy, while obscuring the origin of the false narrative,” the report said.

The fake personas would also write propaganda on sites such as China Daily, Buzzfeed Community and Medium that allows user-submitted content.

“Our investigation identifies cases where Endless Mayfly content led to incorrect media reporting and caused confusion among journalists, and accusations of intentional wrongdoing. Even in cases where stories were later debunked, confusion remained about the intentions and origins behind the stories,” the researchers wrote.

Saudi Arabia was found to be the biggest target of Endless Mayfly. The network sought to propagate the idea that Riyadh’s international reckoning was weakened or that relations with its allies were poor.

Endless Mayfly also described Israel’s supposed growing regional footprint and its warming of relations with Saudi Arabia.

Updated: May 14, 2019 08:51 PM

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