Iranian disinformation 'among top three threats' to the US elections
Iran is spreading disinformation on social media and anti-US content to weaken institutions and divide Americans, officials say
With a mid-size economy and a merely nascent technology scene, Iran was not an obvious suspect when it came to cyber-strikes that swing US presidential elections.
Still, William Evanina, director of America’s National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, graded Tehran among his top three threats to the November 3 ballot, when voters decide between Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Mr Evanina said Iran was “spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content” online to weaken institutions and divide Americans as the campaign heats up.
US tech companies and watchdogs have in recent months raised alarms over Iranian efforts to sway public opinion and influence campaign staffers, but it is not clear whether Tehran’s online activities could seriously affect results in November.
Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and other senior Democrats said Mr Evanina had created a “false sense of equivalence” between cash-strapped Iran and Russia, a titan of online meddling.
Democrats say the Trump administration is playing down the significance of Moscow’s cyber strikes, which reportedly helped Mr Trump win the 2016 vote, and talking up the role of Tehran, a target of the president’s “maximum pressure” policy.
There is little doubt that Iran’s leaders hope Mr Biden will beat Mr Trump in November. If elected, Mr Biden may rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal and end US sanctions, and could be less inclined to launch strikes like the one that killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in January.
Big US technology companies say Iran is doubtlessly up to something in cyberspace. Last month, Shane Huntley, the head of Google’s Threat Analysis Group, said Iranian-backed hackers were attacking the Gmail accounts of Mr Trump’s campaign team members.
These so-called “phishing” attacks, which aim to dupe email recipients into downloading malicious software or other data-gathering malware, did not, however, appear to have fooled any campaign staffers, Google said.
Likewise, Microsoft said late last year that an Iranian hacking group called Phosphorus, with links to Iran’s government, had made about 2,700 phishing attacks on the email accounts of Mr Trump’s re-election staff, US government officials and journalists.
Social media sites are also affected. In February, Facebook and Twitter said they had taken down several accounts that had been sharing and amplifying news items about US elections and geopolitics originating from Iranian state media.
A study in May by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan Washington-based think tank, found Iran has been relatively successful at spreading anti-US news stories via such outlets as PressTV.
A PressTV story in March about the UK’s Prince Harry calling Mr Trump “sick” clocked up tens of thousands of shares, researchers said. That same month, another widely shared Iranian news headline proclaimed “US biological warfare against China could lead to World War III”.
Researchers said Iranian media “rails consistently” against Washington’s “unmatched geopolitical influence and ability to shape international norms of state behaviour” and outpaces even China’s state-run outlets in generating web traffic.
Among cyber security experts, however, opinion is divided over whether Iran is a big force in election meddling.
For Thomas Parker, an ex-US government official and scholar at George Washington University, Tehran is probably tempted by the “low cost and risk” cyber strikes – especially when compared with the downsides of launching military hits on oilfields and tankers across the Gulf.
But James Farwell, an expert in information warfare at the Middle East Institute, a think tank, and the author of Persuasion and Power, said Iran’s cyber strikes were “small-bore stuff” compared with those based in Moscow and Beijing.
“It’s just not the focus of Iran’s activities,” Mr Farwell told The National. “Iran is focused on its military adventures in the Middle East. It’s not interested in stirring up a fight with Trump – especially when they see how badly he’s polling against Biden.”
Updated: July 28, 2020 05:36 PM