Iranian propaganda machine producing fake BBC news

Russia isn’t alone in its campaign to spread fake news. Iran was one of the early adopters in the world of made-up current affairs designed to spread disinformation and discredit legitimate media. One of its main targets in recent years has been the BBC. The news organization’s journalists have faced harassment to the point the BBC filed a complaint with the United Nations last year. On Tuesday, an Israeli cybersecurity company claimed to have found a handful of websites that have been impersonating BBC Persian for seven years.

One is, which remains online today. The site’s design is very close to that of the BCC, and some stories could, on the face of it, pass as real. Most stories, however, are anti-BBC articles or posts from other outlets that the BBC is accused of ignoring. It also includes original videos, alleging faults in news coverage by the Persian BBC. One example headline, translated into English from the original, reads, “The BBC ‘weaving lies’ in order to destroy Islam and the Islamic republic.” Another read,”The BBC’s important news: the divorce of two Hollywood actors.”

The lead story on Wednesday is entitled, “The Persian BBC attack on the Hijab: beating a hollow drum.” Accompanied by a cartoon of a devil-tailed television attacking a woman’s hijab, the teaser reads, “As the Persian BBC is a British royal news agency and seeks to spread Western and colonial culture, it opposes and conflicts with any sort of original Iranian and Islamic culture.”

According to Israel-based cybersecurity firm ClearSky, which detailed the fakes in a 52-page report Wednesday, the sites have been running since 2011. To spread the fake news further, Facebook and Telegram pages to support the counterfeit sites were set up, though they’ve been inactive in recent months.

So successful have the perpetrators been at promoting the fake sites, they appear high in search engine rankings. On the Persian versions of Google and Yahoo, for instance, the site is third highest in each. On the Iranian government-sponsored search engine Yooz, it’s top of the pile.

Who’s behind the fakes?

The three fake websites uncovered by ClearSky (also including persianbbc[.]ir and bbcfarsi[.]org) were all linked to Alireza Javidarabshahi, an Iranian national believed to have worked for the National Ministry of Communications, either by the IP addresses used to host them or in the websites’ freely-available registration data, according to ClearSky. He’s allegedly a member of the Basij, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that’s filled with volunteers who’ve come out of mandatory service, the cybersecurity company wrote. He’s also said to control a Hezbollah-focused website.

According to a report unearthed by ClearSky, Javidarabshahi was allegedly in charge of the Basij movement in a number of universities and colleges, and ran the website hezbolahnews[.]ir. Forbes attempted to contact Javidarabshahi via his Gmail emails listed in the website registration details, as well as the Iranian embassy in London, but did not receive responses at the time of publication.

ClearSky researcher Ohad Zaidenberg believes with medium-high certainty that the operation was funded by the Iranian government, noting Javidarabshahi declared on a private website and social network accounts that he worked for Iranian ministry of communication. “The operation is big in size … and has been active for a long time,” Zaidenberg said.

“Throughout the last several decades Iran has been trying to prevent foreign influences on the Iranian national identity. The Islamic revolution of 1979 is a chief example of this. Accordingly, the objective of this operation is to provoke this sense of nationalism amongst the Iranian populace against western media outlets, by accusing the western media outlets of propagating political agendas against Iran national identity.”

BBC considers action

The BBC, for its part, is considering what to do about the counterfeit sites. “We are aware of these domains and if we consider that it would justify the costs and resources involved, we will take action to have them taken down,” a spokesperson for the British media organization said. As the perpetrator can simply create a new fake site when the old one is removed, the BBC has to determine if the cost and time required to get fakes removed from the web is worth the expense of resources, the spokesperson added.

The BBC is facing increasing pressure in Iran. In recent years, staff were named in fake news accusing them of sexual impropriety or acts that are punishable by the death penalty in Iran, whilst reporters’ family members have been interrogated, according to the broadcaster. In October 2017, the BBC sent an appeal to the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, after Iran launched a criminal investigation into 152 BBC Persian staff, former employees and contributors for “conspiracy against national security.”

Iran and hacker crews operating in the country have also been increasingly active in international cyberespionage. Wednesday also saw the release of a report from U.S. security company Symantec, which detailed an Iran-based group it dubbed Chafer. It targeted, amongst other organizations, airlines and aircraft services. Just last year, Forbes uncovered evidence Deloitte had been targeted by Iranian hackers using a fake Facebook profile.

Source » forbes

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