In late 2016, then-Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif took to Twitter to threaten Israel with nuclear war. The threat, which was later deleted, was prompted by something Asif had apparently come across earlier while online: A post originally published on the “AWD News” site, claiming that the Israeli defense minister had himself threatened nuclear war against Pakistan.
For nearly two years, the sourcing behind “AWD News” remained unclear.
But thanks to today’s massive revelations from Twitter about fake Russian and Iranian accounts, ThinkProgress has learned that “AWD News” was part of a social media and fake news campaign out of Iran. As Lee Foster, an analyst with FireEye — the cyber-security company tasked with unearthing fake Iranian social media operations — told ThinkProgress, “AWD News” is “part of the same operation” that FireEye uncovered on Facebook a few months ago.
That is to say: A fake Iranian news site aimed at English-speakers convinced the Pakistani Defense Minister to issue a nuclear warning against Israel in late 2016.
Tracked to Iran
ThinkProgress’s confirmation of the links in Iran to “AWD News” came via Wednesday’s substantial revelations from Twitter, which published approximately one million tweets “potentially originating in Iran.” This disclosure followed Facebook’s August announcement that it had removed hundreds of fake accounts that originated in Iran.
While Facebook has still not released the names of those accounts, one of the pages identified was “Free Scotland 2014,” a popular pro-Scottish Independence account. As it is, a number of the Iranian tweets released on Wednesday also advocated for Scottish secession.
Many of those tweets were straightforward, calling for people to say “‘Yes’ to Scotland independence and Britain’s Waning Imperialism.” They all linked out to one site: “AWD News.”
The site, as it is, fits a profile shared with many of the other fake and conspiratorial news sites outed as Iranian over the past few weeks. Bizarre grammar, strange syntax, and poor spelling all point to non-English speakers. (As one recent post read, “Hurricane and flood in Texas has made another chance for the analysts and critics to reassess the American society and the political flood devouring the country for months.”) Snopes noted that the site “doesn’t have more than a nodding acquaintance with facts.”
Like other fake Iranian sites — “US Journal,” “Liberty Front Press,” “The British Left” — “AWD News” doesn’t have much identifying information, and attempts to contact the site’s moderators were unsuccessful. It’s “About” section is also a jumble of broken English:
In an era of media disinformation, our focus has essentially been to center on the “unspoken truth”.Thanks to the independent journalists from all over the world,trying to arise awareness, we launched Spanish (Español), French (français), and German (Deutsch) language pages, which contain translations of AWDNEWS articles. As an independent news agency, We welcome all contributions… Funding for our news agency comes from site advertising and individual donors. As an independent media, our aim is to bring the latest news to our readers from a neutral stance, as good journalism should be.
And the site remains live, with material continuing to be published as of Wednesday. One of the most recent posts wondered if “the Saudis and CIA” were “afraid of [slain Saudi journalist Jamal] Khashoggi’s revelations about 9/11?”
Interestingly, while the site’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages have all been suspended, its Instagram account remains live, offering an insight into the page’s social media operations. Many of the posts are highly critical of both Israel and the U.S., while others are supportive of the current government in Tehran.
Fake posts, real weapons
None of the posts from “AWD News,” on social media or otherwise, gained anywhere near the prominence enjoyed by the late December 2016 piece that briefly sparked the aforementioned round of nuclear-tinged trash-talk. Headlined “Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan send ground troops to Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack,” the post — which eventually spurred the Pakistani defense minister to remind Israel that “Pakistan is a Nuclear state too” — came with all of the typos and strange sentence constructions shared by the rest of the site’s content.
The post, as the Guardian noted, also misidentified Israel’s defense minister and a separate Pakistani official.
None of these obvious signs — nor the fact that Pakistan hasn’t even come close to sending ground troops to Syria — deterred Asif from responding. Shortly after Asif’s warning, the Israeli Ministry of Defense responded via Twitter, noting that the “AWD News” post was false.
reports referred to by the Pakistani Def Min are entirely false
— Ministry of Defense (@Israel_MOD) December 24, 2016
All told, the fact that a fake news site could spur a security warning from one nuclear-armed nation to another mirrors another similar incident: The December 2016 shooting at a Washington, D.C. pizzeria by a man who believed the #Pizzagate conspiracy theory was real. The “AWD News” fiasco, though, points to even more dangerous potential outcomes — one involving not only geopolitical tensions, but one showing how easy it is to quickly gin up new frictions between nuclear-armed states with the click of a mouse.