At first, it was only Russia behind a series of fake Facebook accounts, pages, and campaigns targeting gullible populations.
But on Tuesday, Facebook announced that it had identified and removed more than 650 additional fake accounts — the company’s largest take-down to date. Facebook’s latest effort to fight interference on its platform makes it clear that Moscow was by no means the only foreign actor setting up sock-puppet pages for international audiences. As Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, wrote, these pages originated not only in Russia, but in Iran, as well.
The fake pages don’t appear to have been directed at the U.S.’s upcoming midterm elections. Rather, they were a series of different campaigns, staggered over the past few years, with global reach. “We’ve removed 652 Pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services in the Middle East, Latin America, UK and U.S.,” wrote Gleicher.
Facebook — alongside Twitter, which also announced that it had removed a number of related fake accounts — hasn’t revealed much about the fake Russian pages also taken down yesterday, other than to say that these pages most recently “focused on politics in Syria and Ukraine,” pushing “pro-Russian and pro-Assad content.” (YouTube also removed related accounts, although they were far fewer in number.)
Working with our industry peers today, we have suspended 284 accounts from Twitter for engaging in coordinated manipulation. Based on our existing analysis, it appears many of these accounts originated from Iran.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 22, 2018
The Iranian pages, though, appear more numerous, at least in terms of audiences targeted — and reached much further into the types of actions affiliated with previous fake Russian pages, from hiring known writers to attempting to organize on-the-ground events.
Dating to 2011, the Iranian campaign actually comprised a handful of distinct efforts, appearing more diffuse than prior Russian campaigns.
A few remarkable items about the Iranian "campaigns":
—they were relatively old (one started in 2011, one in 2013)
—they were linked to hacking "people" (we don't know who)
—they were relatively small (combined followers <1M)
—they were cheap (~$12,000)
— Thomas Rid (@RidT) August 22, 2018
However, according to the cybersecurity research firm FireEye, which helped spark Facebook’s take-down, the accounts centered on a handful of common themes. “These narratives include anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as support for specific U.S. policies favorable to Iran, such as the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA),” wrote FireEye.
Another common theme among these accounts: fake Iranian accounts who were “masquerading as American liberals supportive of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.”
Interestingly, these fake Iranian accounts also centered on themes shared by fake Russian pages — including supporting secession movements in the West. One of the fake Iranian pages, for instance, was called “Free Scotland 2014,” backing Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum. While the referendum eventually failed, the fake Iranian page nonetheless managed to garner over 20,000 followers before it was removed — making it the one of the most popular pages devoted to Scottish independence.
Likewise, as with previous Russian campaigns, these fake Iranian accounts linked out to fake “news” sites, some of which are still up. One of those sites, “Quest 4 Truth,” is linked directly to Iran’s leading propaganda outlet, Press TV, but claims it’s simply a “group of young people” who are “each on their own journey of seeking the truth.”
These sites all appear to be geared toward progressive audiences, or at least audiences uninterested in “mainstream” outlets. Among the sites:
- “US Journal” claims it is a “genuinely independent online media outlet dedicated to strengthening and supporting independent journalism, and to improving the public’s access to independent information sources.”
- “Liberty Front Press” claims it is “comprised of independent journalists, activists, and anyone who wants to shape the direction of our world toward a better future. We aim to inspire action on the likes of social justice, civil liberties and human rights and advocate transparency and reduction of influence of money in politics.”
- “The British Left” purports to be a “news organisation completely independent of any advertisers, funders, companies, political organisations, or political parties.”
And as with the Russian campaigns prior, these Iranian sites pulled in real actors in the West — especially those who have made a name for themselves as popular conspiracy theorists. One, Caitlin Johnstone, recently began writing for “US Journal,” with pieces over the past few weeks decrying the “official narrative” and claiming that “corporate censorship is state censorship.”
All told, the Iranian campaign doesn’t appear to have been as effective as the Russian campaign, at least in terms of organizing events or breaking into broader discourse. Still, the fact that it was as extensive, and as lengthy, as it was points to a new reality: Russia is by no means the only foreign adversary exploiting social media’s inherent openness.
As Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said Tuesday, “I’ve been saying for months that there’s no way the problem of social media manipulation is limited to a single troll farm in St. Petersburg, and that fact is now beyond a doubt.”