Facebook shuts down Iranian deception campaign that targeted Israel

Company says network with ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ traced back to the Islamic Republic, tried to sow fears of an attack on the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv

Social media applications of WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Periscope, September 18, 2015. (HStocks/Istock by Getty Images)
Social media applications of WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Periscope, September 18, 2015. (HStocks/Istock by Getty Images)

Facebook on Tuesday said it derailed a fledgling deception campaign aimed at the US that was trying to gain momentum ahead of the presidential election next week, and uncovered a campaign against Israel while doing so.

Last week culprits in Iran spread email messages with unbacked claims of hacking into US voting systems and tried to use Facebook to do the same.

One of the campaigns taken down Tuesday was uncovered while digging into the account created to spread the bogus hacking claim.

“This small network originated in Iran and focused primarily on the US and Israel,” Facebook’s Head of Security Policy Nathaniel Gleicher said.

He said the campaign, which had been dormant since last year, had threatened an attack on the Eurovision Song Contest, a major international event hosted in Tel Aviv in 2019.

An aerial view of the Eurovision Village in Tel Aviv during the second semifinals of the Eurovision song contest on May 16, 2019. (Courtesy Tel Aviv Municipality)

“Some of these accounts tried to contact others, including an Afghanistan-focused media outlet, to spread their information,” he wrote.

The hackers in last week’s campaign sent out emails to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at intimidating them into voting for US President Donald Trump. They purported to be from the neo-fascist group Proud Boys and warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.

It is not known whether the Iranian government was behind the attack, which could have been carried out by other actors from the country. The Iranian government denied involvement.

US officials have accused Iranian groups of seeking to spread disinformation and division ahead of the November 3 vote.

“In recent weeks, government agencies, technology platforms and security experts have alerted the public to expect attempts to spread false information about the integrity of the election,” Gleicher said Tuesday.

Facebook’s logo appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York’s Times Square, March 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

“We’re closely monitoring for potential scenarios where malicious actors around the world may use fictitious claims, including about compromised election infrastructure or inaccurate election outcomes, to suppress voter turnout or erode trust in the poll results, particularly in battleground states.”

He added: “It’s important that we all stay vigilant, but also see these campaigns for what they are — small and ineffective.”

Another effort orchestrated from Mexico posted in English and Spanish on topics including racial injustice; feminism and the environment, using a small bit of content posted in the past by the Russian Internet Research Agency.

Facebook did not link the campaign to Russia, saying it had so far only traced control to unspecified people in Mexico.

The network began creating accounts in April, hiding identities and intent of those involved, according to Gleicher.

It had only grown to two Facebook Pages and 22 Instagram accounts, according to Facebook.

Those managing accounts or pages used in the “coordinated inauthentic behavior” campaign claimed to work for what appears to be a fictitious Polish firm.

“Some of these accounts posed as Americans supporting various social and political causes and tried to contact other people to amplify this operation’s content,” Gleicher said.

In total, three small deception campaigns were taken down today at Facebook and Instagram, according to the social network.

A ‘vote here’ sign sits near the Dallas County Courthouse, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Adel, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Each of the networks had few accounts and negligible numbers of followers in what Gleicher said was a sign of Facebook’s success at catching such campaigns quicker.

Catching coordinated deceit efforts faster has triggered a shift in tactics to trying to create a false impression that interference in voting or politics is more pervasive than it actually is, according to Gleicher.

Recent tactics were said to include posing as media outlets or tricking legitimate news agencies into amplifying concerns about social ills or election security.

“We see malicious actors attempt to play on our collective expectation of wide-spread interference to create the perception that they’re more impactful than they in fact are,” Gleicher said.

“We call it perception hacking — an attempt to weaponize uncertainty to sow distrust and division.”

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