Hundreds of accounts allegedly originating in Iran and Russia were shuttered by Facebook and Twitter for “inauthentic behaviour” and “coordinated manipulation,” the companies announced.
Facebook has deleted 652 pages, groups, and accounts on its flagship platform and on Instagram that were created as far back as 2011 and which the social media giant said originated in Iran. Twitter meanwhile has suspended 284 accounts it said were also largely from Iran.
Cybersecurity analysts said that the activity appears to be designed to "promote Iranian political interests, including anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli,” as well as to promote support for specific US policies favourable to Iran. The effort also included "significant" anti-Donald Trump messages.
Facebook accused many of the accounts, apparently linked to state media, of posing as news and civil society organisations (NPR) while targeting users in the Middle East, Latin America, United States, and United Kingdom with political disinformation. Others engaged in traditional hacking and malware attacks, the company said. Also removed were Facebook pages identified by the US government as linked to Russian military intelligence services.
“These were networks of accounts that were misleading people about who they were and what they were doing," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a conference call. "Authenticity matters and people need to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook."
Some accounts in the network were established as far back as 2013, and typically focused on issues in the Middle East and Latin America, as well as in the UK and US, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher said. However, their focus recently shifted. "Beginning in 2017, they increased their focus on the UK and US," Gleicher wrote in a blog post.
The campaign coming from Russia was unrelated to Iran but had links to that country's intelligence community, Facebook said, and focused on issues involving Syria and Ukraine. Facebook said there was no evidence those accounts targeted the US election process.
The campaign reinforces that this is an ongoing information war, that our social ecosystem is vulnerable to manipulation by a variety of adversaries," Gleicher said.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has charged two Iranians with spying on Jewish and opposition groups in the US, and the court documents suggest Tehran is hunting for bombing and assassination targets.
Ahmadreza Doostdar and Majid Ghorbani were indicted on charges of being illegal agents of a foreign power — Iran. On a wiretap, Mr Ghorbani, a California resident, is heard singling out an opposing figure for assassination. “M––F needs one, one shot,” he said.
The Justice Department charging documents say the two men specifically targeted Jewish centres in Chicago as well as an anti-regime opposition rally in New York last year and a convention in Washington this year.
The charges were filed as President Trump embarked on a get-tough policy toward Iran, which the State Department has designated as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism .