Report: Iran-Based Social Media Campaign Impersonated GOP Congressional Candidates, Influenced U.S. Media
Facebook, Twitter delete thousands fake accounts linked to Iran
Facebook and Twitter have announced the decision to crack down on thousands of Iran-linked accounts carrying out disinformation campaigns in the United States. The move comes after a California-based cybersecurity company, FireEye, exposed an elaborate online network being operated from Iran. Some of the fake accounts from Iran were impersonating Republican congressional candidates, the company disclosed Tuesday.
The people behind these fake accounts tried to influence U.S. media coverage and policy making. The network “attempted to lobby journalists to cover specific topics,” FireEye’s research found. The accounts were also peddling anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian propaganda, the research uncovered.
Social media plattforms pulled down thousands of accounts in response to the revelations. “Facebook said it took down 51 accounts, 36 pages and seven groups tied to Iran. Facebook, which owns Instagram, also removed three accounts on the photo sharing pp. Twitter said that in early May it pulled down more than 2,800 fake accounts tied to Iran,” the technology new website CNet confirmed.
The cybersecurity firm FireEye published the findings on its website:
The accounts, most of which were created between April 2018 and March 2019, used profile pictures appropriated from various online sources, including, but not limited to, photographs of individuals on social media with the same first names as the personas. As with some of the accounts that we identified to be of Iranian origin last August, some of these new accounts self-described as activists, correspondents, or “free journalist[s]” in their user descriptions. Some accounts posing as journalists claimed to belong to specific news organizations, although we have been unable to identify individuals belonging to those news organizations with those names.
Narratives promoted by these and other accounts in the network included anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes. Accounts expressed support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal; opposition to the Trump administration’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization; antipathy toward the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East (a U.S.-led conference that focused on Iranian influence in the Middle East more commonly known as the February 2019 Warsaw Summit); and condemnation of U.S. President Trump’s veto of a resolution passed by Congress to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen conflict. (…)
Some Twitter accounts in the network impersonated Republican political candidates that ran for House of Representatives seats in the 2018 U.S. congressional midterms. These accounts appropriated the candidates’ photographs and, in some cases, plagiarized tweets from the real individuals’ accounts. Aside from impersonating real U.S. political candidates, the behavior and activity of these accounts resembled that of the others in the network. (…)
In addition to directly posting material on social media, we observed some personas in the network leverage legitimate print and online media outlets in the U.S. and Israel to promote Iranian interests via the submission of letters, guest columns, and blog posts that were then published. We also identified personas that we suspect were fabricated for the sole purpose of submitting such letters, but that do not appear to maintain accounts on social media. The personas claimed to be based in varying locations depending on the news outlets they were targeting for submission; for example, a persona that listed their location as Seattle, WA in a letter submitted to the Seattle Times subsequently claimed to be located in Baytown, TX in a letter submitted to The Baytown Sun. Other accounts in the network then posted links to some of these letters on social media. (…)
Personas in the network also engaged in other media-related activity, including criticism and solicitation of mainstream media coverage, and conducting remote video and audio interviews with real U.S. and UK-based individuals while presenting themselves as journalists. One of those latter personas presented as working for a mainstream news outlet.
The network was not only promoting pro-Iranian interests, but also building following among U.S. social media users opposed to Iran’s Islamic regime or the Obama-era nuclear deal. Iranian agents were “seeking to build an audience with views antipathetic to Iran that could then later be targeted with pro-Iranian messaging,” FireEye’s report revealed.
Iranian agents were also running an elaborate information gathering operation by “conducting remote video and audio interviews with real U.S. and UK-based individuals while presenting themselves as journalists,” FireEye found. The operation was targeting U.S. citizens across the political spectrum with Iranian fake accounts espousing “both progressive and conservative political stances.”
Several of these “suspicious personas” from Iran had contributed to news blogs and had published letters in prominent U.S. newspapers, including the Seattle Times, the New York Daily News, and the Los Angeles Times.
This is the biggest revelation of its kind, highlighting Iran’s ability to influence the media and spread misinformation to shape U.S. public opinion. The FireEye’s research shows how Iran created an elaborate set-up to penetrate the U.S. social media landscape to wage psychological warfare. Will the liberal mainstream media, still looking for the smoking gun in Russian collusion more than two years on, put the same spotlight on Islamic Republic of Iran for this act of blatant hostility?
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