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Facebook caught Iranian trolls spreading pro-Trump propaganda online

Facebook caught Iranian trolls spreading pro-Trump propaganda online


The fake accounts based in Iran used images of President Trump

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In a blog post Wednesday, Facebook announced it had taken down dozens of Instagram and Facebook accounts that engaged in foreign interference, including separate campaigns from Russia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Iran.

The Iranian campaign was apparently focused on winning over Trump-supporting evangelicals in the US. The posts shared by the fake accounts were “news” items about US elections, Christianity, US immigration policy, and US-Iran relations, and included images of President Trump, according to Facebook’s blog post.

Some of the accounts attempted to contact public figures, posted in groups, and commented on other Facebook content, Facebook said. The operation was connected to an Iran-based global network of hundreds of accounts that it removed in January 2019. “We are making progress rooting out this abuse, but as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge,” Facebook’s head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher wrote in the blog post.

An example of content Facebook says originated from fake accounts in Iran
An example of content Facebook says originated from fake accounts in Iran

Facebook also took down dozens of Facebook accounts and Instagram accounts based in Russia for violating its foreign interference policy, demonstrating that Russia hasn’t given up the tricks it used in 2016. In the latest instances, however, the Russian-based accounts were focused on Ukraine and Crimea, posting content in Russian, Ukrainian, and English

Facebook says it also deactivated about a dozen pages and groups based in Myanmar and Vietnam for violating its policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which appeared designed to sow confusion and misinformation about telecom providers in Myanmar. Facebook stirred controversy in Myanmar last month when a software error accidentally prevented users from posting in the language of one of the country’s ethnic minorities.

Facebook says its investigation found links between the deactivated accounts and Russian military intelligence services. The company did not find links between the Iran-based accounts and the Iranian government, however, suggesting those efforts may be motivated by profit rather than espionage.

Iran has been operating Facebook and Twitter “sockpuppets” since 2010, a new report found

Facebook’s announcement came the same day a report from the Atlantic Council detailed the depth of Iran’s attempts to sow confusion online, as The Washington Post notes. The report says Iran has been operating “sockpuppets” on Facebook and Twitter as far back as 2010, pushing Iranian propaganda via 2,200 Facebook accounts and 8,000 Twitter accounts for a total of about 8 million messages.

But unlike Russia’s disinformation activity, which seeks to spread “false stories with the aim of polluting the information environment,” Iran pushes a “distorted truth... that exaggerates Iran’s moral authority while minimizing Iran’s repression of its citizens and the steep human cost of its own imperial adventures in the wider Middle East,” the report’s authors found.

It’s possible that Iran “may attempt direct electoral interference in 2020 and beyond,” the report states.