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Facebook dismantles disinformation networks relating to Iran, Russia and the US

Facebook has announced it has suspended hundreds of social media accounts for so-called “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. In its monthly report, Facebook said that more than half of the accounts were based in Russia, Iran and Georgia and it had removed a total of eight networks, including one with links to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB).

The report suggests that the Iranian state broadcaster experimented with using fake social media accounts in an attempt to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, amongst other western elections. It demonstrates attempts made by states to exert influence over foreign elections long before the high profile allegation made against Russia in relation to the 2016 US presidential election.

The network that was linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation incorporated more than 500 accounts. Some of the accounts dated back to 2011 and had targeted audiences in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. The network claimed to be independent. However, in reality they were not and was found by analysis company Graphika to have consistently amplified narratives favourable to Tehran.

The network briefly targeted the 2014 Scottish referendum, with a handful of accounts posting ‘pro-leave’ content. This included several cartoons of then prime minister David Cameron as “the embodiment of English oppression”, the Graphika report said.

The network also promoted Ron Paul in his 2012 US presidential bid, as well as the anti-capitalist Occupy movement, but all three cases are described as brief and having made little impact.

The statement by Facebook said:

“The focus on western democratic exercises appears to have been a short-lived experiment conducted with a relatively small number of accounts: it did not have the scale, the sophistication, or the duration of the later Russian efforts,” it said.

Facebook did note that there were more sustained campaigns in Arabic, in which accounts would publish memes and links to articles that were critical of Iran’s geopolitical foes, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. More recent content mentioned the coronavirus, framing the pandemic as an attack on Iran by a foreign enemy and a reason to lift sanctions on both Iran and Syria.

Graphika upholds that the influence network was more notable for its start date rather than it’s success and that:

“[it shows] that state attempts to meddle in democratic elections were underway years before they became prominent with the efforts of Russian-linked groups to sow division and promote Donald Trump.”

Facebook was also forced to remove a U.S. network of fake accounts linked to QAnon, a group that claims Democrats are behind international crime rings, and a separate U.S-based campaign with ties to white supremacist websites.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said the U.S. network recently began pushing coronavirus-related disinformation, taking advantage of a surge in online interest in the pandemic to promote anti-Semitic and anti-Asian hate speech tied to it.

Nathaniel Gleicher said:

“We’ve seen people behind these campaigns opportunistically leverage coronavirus-related topics to build an audience and drive people to their pages or off-platform sites,” he said.

Image credit: Thought Catalog

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