Iranian disinformation 'among top three threats' to 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 is not an obvious suspect for cyber attacks that could swing a US presidential election.
But William Evanina, director of the US National Counter-Intelligence and Security Centre, said Tehran was among his top three threats to the November 3 ballot.
There, 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 staff.
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.
Democrats say the Trump administration is playing down the significance of Russian cyber attacks, reported to have helped Mr Trump win the 2016 vote, and talking up the risk posed by Tehran.
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 Baghdad in January.
Big US technology companies say there is little doubt that Iran is up to something in cyber space.
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.
But the phishing attacks, designed to dupe email recipients into downloading malicious software or other data-gathering malware, did not appear to have fooled any campaign staff, Google said.
Microsoft said late last year that a 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 Washington think tank, found Iran had been relatively successful at spreading anti-US news stories on 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.
But among cyber-security experts, opinion is divided over whether Iran is a major force in election meddling.
For Thomas Parker, a former US government official and scholar at George Washington University, Tehran is probably tempted by the “low cost and risk” of cyber strikes, especially when compared to launching strikes on oilfields and tankers in the Gulf.
James Farwell, an expert in information warfare at the Middle East Institute think tank and author of Persuasion and Power, said Iran’s cyber strikes were “small-bore stuff”.
“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: August 5, 2020 04:02 AM