Facebook busts vast Iranian manipulation campaign targeting Israel, others

Social media giant says fake accounts focused on several Middle Eastern and European states; Twitter says it also found potential Iranian activity

An example of content on a Facebook page tied to an Iranian manipulation campaign. (Facebook)
An example of content on a Facebook page tied to an Iranian manipulation campaign. (Facebook)

Facebook said Thursday it took down hundreds of “inauthentic” accounts from Iran that were part of a vast manipulation campaign operating in more than 20 countries, including Israel.

The world’s biggest social network said it removed 783 pages, groups and accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran.”

The pages were part of a campaign to promote Iranian interests in various countries by creating fake identities of residents of those nations, according to a statement by Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook.

The announcement was the latest by Facebook as it seeks to stamp out efforts by state actors and others to manipulate the social network using fraudulent accounts.

An example of content on a Facebook page tied to an Iranian manipulation campaign. (Facebook)

“We are constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleicher said.

“We’re taking down these pages, groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they post. In this case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”

The operators “typically represented themselves as locals, often using fake accounts, and posted news stories on current events,” including “commentary that repurposed Iranian state media’s reporting on topics like Israel-Palestine relations and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” Gleicher said.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our manual review linked these accounts to Iran.”

The operation dating back to as early as 2010 had 262 pages, 356 accounts, and three groups on Facebook, as well as 162 accounts on Instagram and were followed by about two million users.

Facebook said the fake accounts were part of an influence campaign operating in Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, US, and Yemen.

Earlier on Thursday, US-based technology firm Vocativ said it had identified hundreds of Iranian bots as part of a manipulation campaign aimed at Israeli voters ahead of national elections, the Ynet news website reported.

Vocativ flagged the accounts to the networks hosting them, including Facebook, Twitter and Telegram.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says proves Iran lied about its nuclear program, in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Likud party claimed that Iran was trying to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau.

“It is unsurprising that Iran is trying to topple Prime Minister Netanyahu, who blocked its nuclear program, thwarted its efforts at military entrenchment in Syria, pulverized its economy and sent the Mossad to steal from under its nose the secret nuclear archives,” according to Likud.

Facebook first began looking into these kinds of activities after the revelations of Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 US election, which were aimed at sowing discord.

Also on Thursday, Twitter released an assessment of activity on the social networking service during last year’s US midterm elections. As part of an ongoing review, Twitter identified “limited operations that have the potential to be connected to sources within Iran, Venezuela, and Russia.”

“The majority of these accounts were proactively suspended in advance of Election Day due to the increasingly robust nature of our technology and internal tooling for identifying platform manipulation,” the statement said.

“As ever, attribution is difficult and takes time and significant resourcing to properly investigate,” the company added.

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