An incident in 2016, when Pakistan’s defense minister threatened Israel with nuclear attack in the wake of what turned out to be a fake news story, has been revealed to be just one small instance of an Iran-based global disinformation campaign that has been running for six years and has included dozens of news and media outlets.
According to an extensive Reuters investigation published Friday, over 70 news sites have been spreading disinformation and pushing a pro-Tehran narrative in 15 countries, as part of a widespread and sophisticated online campaign to influence public option all over the world.
The investigation directly tied the sites to Iran, but not to the Iranian government itself. “They look like normal news and media outlets, but only a couple disclose any Iranian ties,” Reuters noted. “They have published in 16 different languages, from Azerbaijani to Urdu.”
According to the Reuters piece, headlined “How Iran spreads disinformation around the world,” the Iran-linked news and media sites it uncovered draw more than half a million visitors a month, and are served by social media accounts with over a million followers.
It said journalists, cybersecurity experts and social media firms are only now starting to uncover the scope of the Iranian influence campaign. The report revealed a number of news sites targeting audiences across the Middle East and North Africa with pro-Iranian propaganda, often times alongside authentic news stories, some dating back to 2012.
The Reuters investigation established that the news agency called “Another Western Dawn,” which duped the Pakistani defense minister into issuing a nuclear threat against Israel in December 2016, is linked to Iran.
At the time, Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif threatened Israel in response to what he thought was a threat, falsely reported by AWDnews.com, ostensibly issued by then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon to use nuclear force if Pakistan sent troops to Syria.
The AWDnews article was headlined, “Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan send ground troops to Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack.”
It falsely quoted Ya’alon saying: “As far as we are concerned,that is a threat,if, by misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do,we will destroy them with a nuclear attack.”
The Pakistani minister tweeted: “Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.” (“Daesh” is an acronym for Islamic State.)
Israel’s Defense Ministry quickly issued a statement making clear that the AWDnews story was false, and Asif was roundly criticized by Pakistani officials for responding to it.
AWDnews offers content in English, French, Spanish and German. According to data from web analytics data, its website receives around 12,000 monthly visitors.
Reuters said politicians in Britain, Jordan, India and the Netherlands, as well as human-rights activists, an Indian music composer and a Japanese rap star, have all shared bogus AWDnews stories in the past.
In 2014, Israel’s then-finance minister Yair Lapid quoted a AWDnews story that falsely attributed pro-Israeli statements to Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Al-Faisal’s remarks were quoted by several media outlets in Israel, though regional policy experts confirmed to The Times of Israel at the time that the Saudi foreign minister never made any such statement in public.
The AWDnews site regularly fabricates reports about Israel and the Muslim world, including reports claiming Israel orchestrated the conflict in Ukraine and that the Mossad is closely tied to the Islamic State jihadist group.
Reuters said it traced the dozens of disinformation sites back to Iran by their various links to the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM). The report said some websites carry stories, videos and cartoons supplied by the Tehran-headquartered IUVM, while others, which make no mention of the agency, list IVUM contact information in their website’s online registration’s records.
On its website, IUVM lists among its goals: “Confronting with remarkable arrogance, western governments and Zionism front activities to correct the deflection of people movements in world,” and “Explaining the importance of Palestine and Quds issue to Internet audience.” Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
The majority of IUVM-linked sites target readers in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia have been fighting a proxy war, according to the report. The sites also target audiences in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Emails sent to IVUM bounced back, Reuters said, and all phone numbers provided by the agency were not in service. Other news outlets carrying IUVM content were also found to have bogus addresses and phone numbers.
Reuters said its investigation found that the sites “clearly support Iran’s government and amplify antagonism to countries opposed to Tehran — particularly Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.”
Noted Reuters: “The identity or location of the past owners of some of the websites is visible in historical Internet registration records: 17 of 71 sites have in the past listed their locations as Iran or Tehran, or given an Iranian telephone or fax number. But who owns them now is often hidden.”
Twice in 2018, social media firms have removed accounts, groups or pages linked to a stealth influence campaign out of Iran.
In October, Facebook said it took down accounts linked to an Iranian effort to influence US and British politics with messages about charged topics such as immigration and race relations.
The social network identified 82 pages, groups and accounts that originated in Iran and violated policy on coordinated “inauthentic” behavior. It carried out an even broader sweep in August, removing 652 pages, groups and accounts linked to both Iran or Russia. IUVM’s Facebook page was removed in the August sweep.
In addition to Facebook, in recent months Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Google have removed accounts that were found to be linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting as part of a misinformation campaign dating back to at least January 2017.