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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Iranian operatives sow discord on Facebook posing as anti-Trump activists

Facebook's 'war room' closed 82 Iran-run pages, groups and accounts seeking to influence the US midterm elections

Facebook has removed 82 pages, accounts and groups controlled by Iranian agents. Collage from Facebook images.
Facebook has removed 82 pages, accounts and groups controlled by Iranian agents. Collage from Facebook images.

A purge of Iranian controlled Facebook and Instagram pages reveals an increasingly sophisticated campaign to "sow discord" in the United States and the United Kingdom, inspired by Russia's infamous operation.

Amid posts with anti-racist messages, pushing progressive taxation or stirring controversy around the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, are messages critical of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the war in Yemen.

The company shut down 30 pages, 33 Facebook accounts, three Facebook groups and 16 Instagram accounts all tied to an Iranian effort to further its foreign policy. More than one million users followed the Iranian effort in some way.

The most successful page had more than 10 million video views, 400,000 page likes and posted more than 10 times a day.

"Our adversaries are smart and well funded, and as we improve, their tactics change," Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's Head of Cybersecurity Policy, wrote in blog post.

Facebook set up a "war room" of 20,000 workers assigned to look for fake accounts distributing false information in its headquarters in Menlo Park, California, ahead of midterm elections in the United States.

"We prohibit coordinated inauthentic behaviour on Facebook because we want people who use our services to be able to trust the connections they make," Mr Geicher wrote.

Facebook were able to identify that the pages were controlled by an Iranian group, but could not say whether it was controlled by the government itself.

While at first, the Iranians were not effective at spreading a message on social media, which requires evoking emotion and engaging with identities, as more information about Russia's campaign emerged, the Iranian campaign became more effective, Ben Nimmo a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who had an advance look at the data told The National.

"It looks like the Iranian operation learned lessons from observing the Russian operation, in the sense that their earlier campaigns were based at driving social media users towards websites," Mr Nimmo said comparing the one million tweets released by Twitter this month to Facebook's recent purge.

"What these accounts seem to be doing is to be using social media to get engagement on social media," he said.

While earlier campaigns pushed niche Iranian policy links to uninterested Twitter users, the accounts Facebook has removed shows the effort engaging with hot topic issues before pushing their desired narrative.

"A lot of that messaging was divisive and it was aimed at the US. So there were lots of attacks on President Trump for example. But in the mix they were inserting messaging which was in line with Iranian foreign policy views," Mr Nimmo said.

On Instagram, an account called "shut_racism" posted a picture of a jovial Ivanka Trump photoshopped into an image of what appears to be young Palestinians running from Israel fire, It was captioned: "Ivanka #Trump has the Blood of Dead Children on Her Hands! #Palestine #ivankatrump #Israel #Apartheid".

The same account posted an image in solidarity with children staging a national walkout calling for gun control in March.

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Read more:

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Where Russia's campaign posted as both left and right wing candidates to create division, Iran's accounts only vocalised far-left messages.

This could be to stoke resentment against President Trump or to use the left-wing as camouflage for pushing their agenda.

The Facebook campaign also took measures to hide their poor grasp of English by taking memes from other websites or blogs and by posting them with short phrases.

Some errors were illustrative though. One meme composed of two side by side pictures only made sense if you read the right-hand image first. Farsi, like Arabic, is written from right to left.

Facebook's action is a part of a concerted effort by social media companies to tackle disinformation campaigns by foreign agents, particularly surrounding elections.

It is unclear if all Iranian controlled accounts have been removed from Facebook, but pages which frequently shared posts by Iranian controlled accounts are still active.

Earlier in October, Twitter released one million tweets by Iranian-controlled trolls, all of which had been removed by the platform.

Tweets spread fake news of a Saudi coup, was blamed for a nuclear spat between the former Pakistani foreign minister and harassed journalists who exposed their lies.

But sister Facebook pages of some of those labelled as trolls by Twitter are still active.

One website called Real Iran which links to the closed Twitter account and whose Facebook page is still active, claims to educate the world about the virtues of the country.

"Our goal is to introduce the various aspects of 'Real Iran'. It is important for us that people around the world know what media censor about Iran," it says on its website, questioning common criticisms of the state. "Is Iran a terrorist country or it had been victimized by terrorists? Does Iran really pursue a nuclear weapon?"

On Facebook, the page posts colour saturated photographs of the country and occasional links to pro-Iran stories.

Last week a story about Iran's satellite programme written by Mehr News Agency, but not credited as such, was posted alongside a picture of a hostel in Shiraz.