Twitter deletes thousands of accounts linked to Iran government

More than 200 of the accounts originating in Iran ‘directly engaged with discussions related to Israel,’ social network says

Illustrative: The logo of US social network company Twitter displayed on the screen of a smartphone, May 2, 2019. (LOIC VENANCE / AFP)
Illustrative: The logo of US social network company Twitter displayed on the screen of a smartphone, May 2, 2019. (LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

Twitter said Thursday it had deleted nearly 4,800 suspect accounts linked to Iran that the company says secretly pushed that government’s agenda.

Twitter is adding those accounts and their tweets to a public database it launched last year to track its battle against government-linked misinformation. It is also adding a smaller number of deleted accounts linked to Russia, Venezuela and the Catalonia region of Spain.

The social media giant removed 4,779 accounts “we believe all are associated with — or directly backed by — the Iranian government,” a company statement said. Twitter said the removals are meant to prevent election interference while preserving valid political speech.

Social media firms like Twitter, Google and Facebook have been accused of allowing political propagandists to use their platforms to hijack elections, poison online debate and smear their opponents. But Twitter, in a blog post by its head of site integrity Yoel Roth, said “transparency is core to our mission” and vowed to fight “misleading, deceptive, and spammy behaviour.”

The company confirmed last month it had removed about 2,800 of the Iranian accounts that were using fake personas.

Twitter launched the database in October. Anyone can download the datasets, which has some information redacted. Researchers can request access to get the unredacted documents.

Thursday’s release was the firm’s third such archive, representing more than 30 million tweets and a terabyte of media data from the just under 5,000 suspected accounts.

Most of the Iranian accounts were found to be spreading news stories angled to support Iranian geopolitical interests or to be fake user profiles designed to manipulate online debate.

A smaller sub-group, originating in Iran, exclusively “engaged with discussions related to Israel.”

Twitter previously targeted alleged Russian bots, and its archive contains four more accounts that the firm believes are associated with the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The St. Petersburg-based “troll factory” has been accused of working with Russian intelligence to influence Western votes, notably US President Donald Trump’s election campaign.

Investigations into the Russian agency also led Twitter’s security team to 33 more accounts linked to a previously known group of 764 Venezuelan fake users.

“Our further analysis suggests that they were operated by a commercial entity originating in Venezuela,” the post said.

And in Spain, Twitter took down 130 allegedly fake accounts apparently set up to push the views of Catalan separatists.

“We believe the public and research community are better informed by transparency,” Roth said.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova and Security Commissioner Julian King are scheduled to brief reporters Friday on European efforts to fight political disinformation.

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