In a little-known report published last week, the cybersecurity firm FireEye found that Facebook and Twitter accounts linked to Iran impersonated U.S. journalists and Republican political candidates in order to push fake news.
“The accounts, most of which were created between April 2018 and March 2019, used profile pictures appropriated from various online sources, including, but not limited to, photographs of individuals on social media with the same first names as the personas,” the report said. “As with some of the accounts that we identified to be of Iranian origin last August, some of these new accounts self-described as activists, correspondents, or “free journalist[s]” in their user descriptions. Some accounts posing as journalists claimed to belong to specific news organizations, although we have been unable to identify individuals belonging to those news organizations with those names.”
The accounts expressed “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes,” and support for the Obama administration’s Iran Deal. These accounts also blasted the Trump administration for designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, the report said.
In addition to fake Facebook accounts, Twitter also faced the coordinated campaign:
Some Twitter accounts in the network impersonated Republican political candidates that ran for House of Representatives seats in the 2018 U.S. congressional midterms. These accounts appropriated the candidates’ photographs and, in some cases, plagiarized tweets from the real individuals’ accounts. Aside from impersonating real U.S. political candidates, the behavior and activity of these accounts resembled that of the others in the network.
Facebook told technology website CNet that it “took down 51 accounts, 36 pages and seven groups tied to Iran.” It also removed three accounts from its photo-sharing app, Instagram. “Twitter said that in early May it pulled down more than 2,800 fake accounts tied to Iran,” CNet reported.
FireEye also found that some of the fake personas were able to influence print and online media outlets in the U.S. and Israel “to promote Iranian interests via the submission of letters, guest columns, and blog posts that were then published.” Some of these personas actually conducted interviews “with real U.S. and UK-based individuals while presenting themselves as journalists.”
Vijeta Uniyal of Legal Insurrection called this report “the biggest revelation of its kind, highlighting Iran’s ability to influence the media and spread misinformation to shape U.S. public opinion.”
Another example of this kind of disinformation campaign also was revealed last week. The United States Army War College posted a report on Friday detailing how Pakistan was able to spread fake news that turned the people of India against their own government:
In February 2019, in (Indian-administered) Southern Kashmir, a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist cell attacked an Indian paramilitary convoy with an improvised explosive device (IED). Two weeks later, when India launched airstrikes against a suspected JeM camp in Pakistan, it escalated the incident to a military crisis. Pakistan quickly weaponized its social media space, spreading disinformation or “fake news,” using old photographs and videos of downed jets and destroyed equipment, implying their wreckage resulted from the recent aerial duel between its airforce the Indian fighter jets. In doing so, the Pakistani security establishment successfully used social media and television to spread disinformation and chaos through multimedia content, and turned the Indian public against its own political leadership, in what seems to have been — until now — a rare example of organized state-sponsored weaponization of social media — during an active military crisis.
The U.S. and Pakistan currently have a shaky relationship, but they are not considered an enemy. Still, when countries have demonstrated a clear ability to spread disinformation, U.S. media outlets need to use caution in their sourcing.