Facebook says Iran-backed accounts pretended to be news organisations to spread information and to launch cyber attacks

  • Facebook says it removed 652 Pages and accounts on its services that it linked to Iran, as well as numerous Russia-linked accounts involved in inauthentic behaviour.
  • The Iran and Russia campaigns were distinct but used similar tactics, Facebook said.
  • The Iran accounts purchased thousands of dollars worth of ads on Facebook and on Instagram, and hosted 25 events.

Facebook has removed hundreds of pages and accounts linked to Iran and Russia that it says were involved in coordinated campaigns to conceal their identities on its services, and in some cases to launch cyber attacks.

In a a blog post on Tuesday, Facebook said it detected “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” on its 2-billion member flagship social network as well as on its Instagram photo-sharing service.

The revelation of Iran-backed subterfuge on Facebook, although an effort that began several years ago, underscores the extent to which consumer-oriented social networks have become the front lines in a shadowy battle among various nations and organisations to influence and distort public perception.

Facebook said the Russian and Iranian-based efforts were distinct, and that it has not found any links between them, but that they both used similar tactics that involved “creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.”

“We ban this kind of behaviour because we want people to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook,” the company said in the post.

The findings come ahead of the 2018 US midterm elections, and is the latest example of social media services like Facebook being used as propaganda platforms to spread misinformation and sow division among the public, following Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential election.

On a call with reporters following the announcement,CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested there may be more disclosures of information campaigns to come in the months ahead: “I think it’s safe to say we have a number of investigations going on, and we’ll update you when we know more.”

The revelations seems certain to increase the political heat on Facebook and CEO Zuckerberg, with Senator Mark Warner, of Virginia, tweeting that that he looked forward to learning more about the incidents in upcoming Congressional hearings with Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Facebook has taken down hundreds of pages and accounts

Facebook said it has purged its platforms of 652 pages, groups, and accounts. According to the company, the removed Pages and accounts involve two distinct strands – those from Iran, and those from Russia.

Among the Iran pages, Facebook said that it detected three separate campaigns, two of which were connected and have been linked to Iranian state media. The three campaigns targeted people across multiple internet services in the Middle East, Latin America, UK and US.

One strand of the Iran activities involved accounts affiliated with what Facebook described as “traditional cybersecurity attacks, including attempts to hack people’s accounts and spread malware.” Facebook said that it had previously detected the hacking attempts and disrupted them.

Facebook credited FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, for tipping it off to a network of Iran-backed sites called the “Liberty Front Press” which pretented to be independent news organisations and civil society organisations. Upon investigating the network, Facebook said it was able to use website registration information and IP addresses to determine that Liberty Front Press was in fact linked to Iranian state media.

“One part of the network, ‘Quest 4 Truth,’ claims to be an independent Iranian media organisation, but is in fact linked to Press TV, an English-language news network affiliated with Iranian state media,” Facebook said.


Read more: 18 political ads you may have seen on Facebook that were actually created by Russian trolls

According to Facebook, these Iran-linked pages purchased more than $US6,000 of ads, using US and Australian dollars, to run on Facebook and Instagram. Some of the Iran Facebook pages also hosted real world events, Facebook said.

While Facebook said the accounts posted political content, initially aimed at the Middle East and Latin America, and starting in 2017 increasingly aimed at the US and UK, it did not accuse the groups of seeking to interfere in the US midterm elections.

More Russia accounts

Meanwhile, Facebook also took down pages, groups, and accounts “that can be linked to sources the US government has previously identified as Russian military intelligence services,” the company said. These were focused on politics in Syria and Ukraine, two countries of political importance to Russia.

Russia was found to have used Facebook to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election, buying up advertisements and spreading divisive messages or fake news.

These actions kicked off a chain of scandals for Facebook that the company is still struggling to recover from, and it has since acknowleged it was caught unawares and that it is investing significant capital in new security and safety efforts.

Zuckerberg suggested on Tuesday that these increased investments were working, and that the company was able to detect the campaigns increasingly early. “We’re starting to see it pay off and we’re identifying more of this before the election,” he said.

A chain of scandals

Facebook, fake accounts, Russia,FacebookFacebook previously detected fake accounts like this one, designed to interfere with the 2018 US midterm elections

In July 2018, Facebook announced it had detected a coordinated information campaign intended to influence US politics ahead of the midterms – the first such information campaign it had announced discovering this election cycle.

In that campaign, dozens of accounts were engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” and organised dozens of real-world events, often working with unwitting legitimate activists in the US.

Facebook did not identify who was behind it, but said there were similarities to previous Russian disinfinformation campaigns. The content seems to have been designed to be politically divisive, and was generally left-wing, sometimes directly opposing President Donald Trump.

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