Facebook Removes 82 Iranian-Linked Accounts

Facebook announced Friday that it has removed 82 accounts, pages or groups from its site and Instagram that originated in Iran, with some of the account owners posing as residents of the United States or Britain and tweeting about liberal politics.

At least one of the Facebook pages had more than one million followers, the firm said. The company said it did not know if the coordinated behavior was tied to the Iranian government. Less than $100 in advertising on Facebook and Instagram was spent to amplify the posts, the firm said.

The company said in a post titled “Taking Down Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior from Iran” that some of the accounts and pages were tied to ones taken down in August.

“Today we removed multiple pages, groups and accounts that originated in Iran for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram,” the firm said. “This is when people or organizations create networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing.”

Monitoring online activity

Facebook says it has ramped up its monitoring of the authenticity of accounts in the runup to the U.S. midterm election, with more than 20,000 people working on safety and security. The social media firm says it has created an election “war room” on the campus to monitor behavior it deems “inauthentic.”

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy for Facebook, said that the behavior was coordinated and originated in Iran.

The posts appeared as if they were being made by citizens in the United States and in a few cases, in Britain. The posts were of “politically charged topics such as race relations, opposition to the president, and immigration.”

In terms of the reach of the posts, “about 1.02 million accounts followed at least one of these Pages, about 25,000 accounts joined at least one of these groups, and more than 28,000 accounts followed at least one of these Instagram accounts.”

A more advanced approach

The company released some images related to the accounts. 

An analysis of 10 Facebook pages and 14 Instagram accounts by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab concluded the pages and accounts were newer, and more advanced, than another batch of Iranian-linked pages and accounts that were removed in August.

“These assets were designed to engage in, rather than around, the political dialogue,” the lab’s Ben Nimmo and Graham Brookie wrote. “Their behavior showed how much they had adapted from earlier operations, focusing more on social media than third party websites.”

And those behind the accounts appeared to have learned a lesson from Russia’s ongoing influence campaign.

“One main aim of the Iranian group of accounts was to inflame America’s partisan divides,” the analysis said. “The tone of the comments added to the posts suggests that this had some success.”

Targeting U.S. midterm voters

Some of the accounts and pages directly targeted the upcoming U.S. elections, showing individuals talking about how they voted or calling on others to vote.

Most were aimed at a liberal audience.

“Proud to say that my first ever vote was for @BetoORourke,” said one post from an account called “No racism no war,” which had 412,000 likes and about half a million followers.

“Get your ass out and VOTE!!! Do your part,” said another post shared by the same account.

U.S. intelligence and national security officials have repeatedly warned of efforts by countries like Iran and China, in addition to Russia, to influence and interfere with U.S. elections next month and in 2020.

Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who is a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Facebook’s decision to pull down the questionable pages and accounts and share the information with the public is critical to “keeping users aware of and inoculated against such foreign influence campaigns.”

“Facebook’s discovery and exposure of additional nefarious Iranian activity on its platforms so close to the midterms is an important reminder that both the public and private sector have a shared responsibility to remain vigilant as foreign entities continue their attempts to influence our political dialogue online,” Schiff said in a statement.

But not all the Iranian material was focused on the U.S. midterm election.

“These accounts masqueraded primarily as American liberals, posting only small amounts of anti-Saudi and anti-Israeli content,” the Digital Forensic Research Lab said.

A number of posts also took aim at U.S. policy in the Middle East in general. One post by @sut_racism, accused Ivanka Trump of having “the blood of Dead Children on Her Hands.”

Still, the analysts said many of the posts also contained errors that gave away their non-U.S. origins. For example, in one post talking about the deaths of U.S. soldiers in World War II, the account’s authors used a photo of Soviet soldiers.

Michelle Quinn contributed to this report.

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