Facebook Removes Fake Iranian Network Targeting Millions of Foreign Citizens
By Zak Doffman
Facebook announced on Tuesday that the company had identified and removed a significant number of pages, groups and accounts involved in what they call “coordinated inauthentic behavior”.
Although the company said that these included links to “Russia, Macedonia and Kosovo”, Iran was the clear standout, with networks responsible for “513 pages, groups and accounts… as part of multiple networks tied to Iran,” and which operated in “Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Kashmir, Kazakhstan or [more] broadly across the Middle East and North Africa.”
A blog post on Medium, pointed to on Twitter by Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, said that “the pages routinely amplified Iranian state narratives, targetting Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, especially for their roles in the Middle East, and focusing on the Yemen and Palestine conflicts.”
Pulling the network
According to Facebook, the uncovered Iranian network accounted for 263 Facebook and 57 Instagram accounts, with 1.4 million page followers and 38,000 accounts following one or more of these Instagram accounts. The company reported that “the page administrators and account owners represented themselves as locals and made-up media entities, often using fake accounts – and they impersonated real political groups and media organizations.”
In January, Facebook also announced that it had detected “activity directed from Iran, in some cases repurposing Iranian state media content, and engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior targeting people across the world, although more heavily in the Middle East and South Asia. These were interconnected and localized operations, which used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.”
Today’s announcement disclosed that the Iranian network “posted news stories on current events and frequently repurposed and amplified content from Iranian state media.”
Of particular interest is the range of headline topics that have been targeted, and which include “sanctions against Iran; tensions between India and Pakistan; conflicts in Syria and Yemen; terrorism; tensions between Israel and Palestine; Islamic religious issues; Indian politics; and the recent crisis in Venezuela.”
Multiple pages appeared to fuel the anti-Zionist press that has made headlines in U.K. politics in recent months, with captions relating to the increasing prominence of Palestinian flags and anti-Zionist rhetoric that has been amplified on the left of British politics since Jeremy Corbyn took the leadership of the opposition Labour Party.
Corbyn himself been linked to Iran, having hosted several programs for the country’s state Press TV and has been heavily criticized for befriending Hamas and Hezbollah and laying a wreath at a grave in Tunis associated with the terrorist organization that massacred Israeli athletes in 1972. A number of the pages removed by Facebook play directly into this.
In total 2,632 Pages, Groups and accounts were removed from Facebook and Instagram. The company said they “didn’t find any links between these sets of activities, but they used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.”
This has become an increasing focus for the company. Last November they announced that they had removed similar pages and accounts just ahead of the U.S. midterms.
Respite for Facebook?
This news will be a welcome respite for Facebook after the increasing criticism of their handling of the Christchurch attack footage that streamed on their site and their alleged unwillingness to remove the far-right material that is seen to be fueling increasing levels of extremism.
Putting Facebook to one side, the increasing efforts on the part of the Iranian regime to fuel popular political movements in foreign countries through the use of social media is escalating. Last year, Iran’s fake news machine was dismissed as a ‘rank amateur’ when compared to Russia in particular. The news today suggests that might be changing.
How social media continues to regulate itself, detecting and removing fake accounts and news in this way has now become central to the ongoing debate about the role social media should play in society.