Troll farms, bots, web brigades, fake news: they’re commonly associated with Russian interference in Western politics. But Russia is not the only one using digital tools to influence political conversations. Iran is also attempting to influence foreign democracies.
In August, Twitter disclosed it had identified 770 accounts, and over one million tweets, believed to be connected to Iranian misinformation campaigns, plausibly state-backed. This month it made all of the tweets available to researchers.
These accounts consistently shared links to a network of news websites posing as legitimate US or Europe-based media outlets, but which published inauthentic content promoting Iranian political interests – namely, anti-Saudi, anti-Israel, anti-Trump and pro-Palestinian narratives. In fact, the top five geopolitical words mentioned in the suspicious tweets were “Saudi”, “Iran”, “Trump”, “Palestine” and “Israel”.
“The falsehood lies in the nature of the websites themselves,” says Ben Nimmo, an Information Defense Fellow at the American think-tank Atlantic Council. “Social media is a secondary amplifier to drive people towards those websites, which masquerade as news outlets in the countries where they say they are stationed, but in fact largely reproduce the Iranian government’s rhetoric.”
Approximately a third of the tweets published by Twitter contained links to AWDNews – a page that has already been flagged in the past for propagating Iran-sponsored content. At times, with significant consequences: in 2016, AWDNews published a story falsely claiming that the Israeli defence minister had threatened to nuke Pakistan if it sent troops to Syria, causing officials in Islamabad to post an official tweet reminding Israel of its own nuclear capabilities.
On that occasion, Iranian disinformation managed to make a few headlines. But that was an exception in a campaign that has been otherwise overlooked. That changed last summer, when cybersecurity company FireEye published a report exposing six websites that, in the style of AWDNews, pose as Western-based news organisations, but are actually suspected of being affiliated to Iranian efforts to target US, UK, Latin American and Middle Eastern audiences.
In response to questions, an emailed reply signed ‘AWDNEWS’ described FireEye’s allegations as “a hysterical witch hunt over nothing”. “FireEye provides absolutely no verifiable proof,” it says. “We are working as an alternative, independent website. It’s absurd.”
Another website flagged up in FireEye’s report is USjournal.net. The site describes itself as a “genuinely independent online media outlet dedicated to strengthening and supporting independent journalism, and to improving the public’s access to independent information sources”. The page’s international section features four categories: Yemen crisis, Syrian civil war, Bahrain revolution, and Palestinian cause.
Among the authors listed, FireEye identified one of them, Liam Jay Campbell, who claims to be from Sacramento, and whose Twitter account – now deleted – linked to an Iranian phone number. Another one, Elizabeth Tacher, had social media profiles which, until they were deleted, featured pictures taken from a French actress.
That is not to say all authors are fake. One of them, Sondoss Al Asaad, who claims to have been a journalist since 2011, says USjournal provides her with a space to share her reflections on Middle Eastern politics. “The audiences I target are the Americans in particular and the rest of the free Western world,” she says. “As Eastern, colonised nations, whether Iranians, Syrians, Yemenis, Palestinian, Bahrainis, etc., we must exert all possible efforts to let the Americans read more about the notorious atrocities which they have committed against us.”
Robert Fantina, a US citizen and author of Empire, Racism and Genocide: A History of US Foreign Policy, is another listed writer. He says he was invited by email to submit articles by the publication itself. Asked whether the website is promoting Iranian interests, he says: “Iran has a right but also a responsibility to defend itself against the lies that the US government is telling about it. The name, USJournal, may be somewhat deceiving, but if it gets people to read about the truth, I see no harm in it.”
Another website listed by FireEye is The British Left, whose Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts have now been suspended. In its “About Us” section, it praised its editor in chief Una Mullally for her exceptional work in building a new and progressive media outlet. Mullally is a well-respected journalist writing for The Guardian and The Irish Times. And it turns out that, until the report brought attention to the organisation, she had no idea that she had been chosen as the public face of The British Left’s editorial board. In an article for The Irish Times, she wrote: “I had never heard of the website until then, and have never written for it and am certainly not its ‘editor in chief’.”
FireEye’s report concluded that the websites it flagged could belong to a suspected Iranian-sponsored “influence operation”. A month later, Reuters effectively identified a news agency called the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM) as standing at the centre of the Iranian misinformation campaign. Content produced by IUVM, often sourced from Iran’s Press TV, Al Manar TV, or Fars news agency, is picked up and shared via websites such as USJournal or AWDNews — all the while posing as US or British-sourced news.
The ecosystem of Iranian websites propagating misinformation, therefore, seems to be well established – enough to catch Twitter’s eye. So why is everyone only talking about Russian trolls? For Nimmo, that’s essentially because Iran is not trolling right. “A million tweets is quite a lot,” he says, “but it seems they were spreading fairly thinly. The campaign never crossed the threshold of impact enough to be noticed, at least on social media. It was just not particularly well done.”
For instance: USJournal’s Twitter account has only five followers. This, according to Nimmo, is because the Iranian campaign did not make the most of social media. Twitter and Facebook accounts simply shared links towards pro-Iranian websites, without putting much effort into creating human personas to engage with a community. In that sense, he continues, what they were doing could barely be considered trolling.
The Russians, in contrast, are extremely effective at provoking reactions. They surgically target divisive events, such as the 2016 US election or the Brexit referendum, and spread inflammatory messages to aggravate discord. Social media accounts are much more personalised and come with identifiable personalities — “you can almost sense the human being at the end of the keyboard,” says Nimmo. Thus they created a much larger following, and made a bigger impact.
Peter Busch, a senior lecturer at the department of war studies at King’s College in London, agrees that Teheran’s Twitter troll army lacked personality. “Iranian accounts seem to be more formulaic and less engaging in the conversational style that is popular on social media,” he says.
In other words, Iran’s campaign was a bit of a flop. And one that is also much more likely to be put down by Twitter or Facebook, which pick up on accounts called “inauthentic” — that is, those that don’t seem to spread information in a normal human way. A mechanical persona sharing link after link is much more likely to be flagged as “inauthentic” than one actively posting divisive content.
But Iranian trolls are learning. Before being taken down in the aftermath of FireEye’s report, and more recently on Twitter, the accounts linked to the websites partaking in Iran’s misinformation campaign seemed to be progressing towards more sympathetic personas. An example is Liberty Front Press, the first news website identified by FireEye. The Twitter account holding the handle @LibertyFrontPr suddenly changed it to @berniecratts, in July 2018, and started posting aggressive content against Donald Trump, seemingly to target Bernie Sanders’ supporters.
“It seems that whoever runs the account realised how much less of a voice they had as the corporate head of a website,” says Nimmo, “and started testing with making themselves look more like an activist group posting more aggressively.”
That’s something to keep in mind for the future. For Ariane Tabatabai, senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, there are reasons to be concerned about the Iranian campaign.“It is not something that will go away anytime soon,” she says. “Iran will ramp up its efforts. Although so far it has had nowhere near as much impact as Russian campaigns, we have to think of who else is in the pond — not just the big fish.”
Source » wired