Facebook smashes Iranian manipulation campaign targeting Israel, others
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Facebook smashes Iranian manipulation campaign targeting Israel, others

Account holders presented themselves as locals, often impersonating real political groups and media organizations

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

This post, from a site called amadnews_official, carries a speech bubble saying, "Neither, Gaza nor Lebanon, my [soul] is for Iran," and a somewhat obscure caption which says, "Amed News, lets cry blood, we will not forget you ever, Tehran, Mashad, Shahin Najafi, Restart, Wednesday without suppression, White Wednesday, Human Echo, Celebrity." (Facebook)
This post, from a site called amadnews_official, carries a speech bubble saying, "Neither, Gaza nor Lebanon, my [soul] is for Iran," and a somewhat obscure caption which says, "Amed News, lets cry blood, we will not forget you ever, Tehran, Mashad, Shahin Najafi, Restart, Wednesday without suppression, White Wednesday, Human Echo, Celebrity." (Facebook)

Iran has been bombarding Israel and other countries with fake content online, Facebook revealed Wednesday, in an announcement saying that it has taken down 513 pages, groups and accounts traced back to the Islamic Republic.

This content was among 2,632 illegitimate pages, groups and accounts removed by the social network that were linked to Tehran as well as to Russia, Macedonia and Kosovo.

No links were found between these sets of country-related networks.

The announcement followed a similar one from the company at the end of January that it had removed 783 pages, groups and accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran” that had been operating in more than 20 countries, including Israel.

“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,” Facebook said in an online statement.

“We’re taking down these pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted. In each 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.”

Until last month, multiple networks tied to Tehran were operating in Israel as well as Egypt, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kashmir and Kazakhstan, or broadly across the Middle East and North Africa, the social networking organization said.

“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,” Facebook said.

An Iran-linked post from the fake site We are Humanity carries the caption “Palestine’s flag was fluttered at annual British Trade Union conference.” (Facebook)

They spent around $15,000 on Facebook ads – which ran from December 2013 through last month — paying in US dollars, Indonesian rupiah, Indian rupees, Pakistan rupees, Swiss francs and Canadian dollars.

They posted news stories on current events and frequently re-purposed and amplified content from Iranian state media on topics such as sanctions against Iran, the Israeli-Arab conflict, conflicts in Syria and Yemen, terrorism, and Islamic religious issues, Facebook found.

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

Some 1.4 million accounts followed one or more of these pages, with around 108,000 accounts joining at least one of these groups and about 38,000 following one or more of these accounts on Instagram.

Facebook said it had identified some of these activities through a follow-on investigation into the  Iran-linked behavior found and removed earlier this year.

It added that it had shared information with US law enforcement.

Facebook also removed 212 Facebook pages, groups and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Macedonia and Kosovo.

A small number of those pages purported to represent political communities in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, posting about religious and political issues such as nationalism, Islam, and political figures.

One fake post claimed that British Conservative Party parliamentarians were calling for the resignation of all MPs from their party who favored remaining within the European Union.

An Iranian-linked fake news post relating to the current crisis in the UK over Brexit. (Facebook).

“While we are making progress rooting out this abuse, as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge because the people responsible are determined and well-funded,” Facebook said.

“We constantly have to improve to stay ahead. That means building better technology, hiring more people and working more closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies. Their collaboration was critical to these investigations.”

In January, Vocativ — a tech firm founded by Israeli entrepreneur Matti Kochavi — revealed that hundreds of Iranian bots were working to increase social and political divisions among Israelis and drive a radicalization of political discourse online ahead of the country’s April 9 elections.

Bots are pieces of computer code that look like the accounts of real people and that suddenly appear in large numbers to support or delegitimize targets, or to spread disinformation in an attempt to sow general discord or distrust toward governments, news organizations or other institutions.

In September, the Israeli cybersecurity firm ClearSky announced that it had uncovered three Iran-run fake Hebrew and Arabic news sites targeting Israelis, as well as a score of fake social media accounts.

One of the sites was the Hebrew-language Tel Aviv Times, which engaged in “distorting news.” The other two were Arabic language news outlets that promoted the Islamic Republic.

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