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Iranian Propagandists on Reddit Did Not Really Get Reddit

Election meddling: harder than it looks!

Reddit Snoo logo holding an Iranian flag.
Illustration by Slate.

This post is part of Reading Reddit, a Slate pop-up blog about Reddit.

On the internet, no one knows that you’re an agent of a foreign government posing as a red-blooded American. That, at least, is the logic that seems to lead foreign agents to infiltrate American social networks and comment sections and construct homepages for sham news organizations, sharing links and opinions that, at least on the surface, seem similar to those shared by your average workaday Mr. or Mrs Left- or Right-Wing American. But the masquerade does not always pass close scrutiny—especially when, as a foreign intelligence agent, you don’t even bother to try to pass as an authentic American.

On Aug. 21, for instance, the security firm FireEye released a report alleging that that entities based in Iran had conducted an English-language online propaganda campaign. It centered around a website called “Liberty Front Press” that was ostensibly devoted to publishing news “in support of the oppressed and downtrodden,” and had disseminated its news via posts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and other social networks. But as my Slate colleagues April Glaser and Aaron Mak wrote at the time, the Iranians behind Liberty Front Press never really got the hang of the social networks they were using. Glaser and Mak found that the Liberty Front Press Twitter account

was also apparently trying to artificially boost its visibility by using popular hashtags that had nothing to do with the subject matter of the tweets. For example, the hashtags #TheBachelor and #StarWarsRebels were affixed to the end of a tweet describing the Florida Senate’s gun control package in March.

To be fair, though, the guns on this year’s Bachelor were truly out of control. Did you see that guy’s guns? Great pair of guns on that bachelor, am I right? (I have never watched The Bachelor.)

Anyway, on Friday, the management of Reddit announced that an internal investigation precipitated by the FireEye report had “uncovered 143 accounts we believe to be connected to this influence group,” and that the accounts in question had “focused on steering the narrative around subjects important to Iran, including criticism of US policies in the Middle East and negative sentiment toward Saudi Arabia and Israel. They were also involved in discussions regarding Syria and ISIS.” The investigation also found that the accounts targeted left- and right-wing subreddits “whose critical views of US involvement in the Middle East formed an environment that was receptive to the articles.”

In other words, the Iranians were preaching to the choir. But what did their engagement look like? Luckily, Reddit has decided to keep at least six of these accounts open for now so that we can all take a look and watch some foreign agents at work. (Their user pages even have a sticky post saying, “This account is banned and is temporarily preserved for purposes of transparency.”) User jeremybernard was apparently the resident lazybones of this particular propaganda mission. All in all he submitted two links total during the 11 months his account was active on the site. One, a post to r/MorbidReality titled “People Around the World Show Solidarity With Little Girl Survived From a Saudi Air Strike,” was tagged as “not safe for work.” User suarezanton was a little bit more productive than his colleague, submitting three posts and two comments and racked up a whopping one karma point since joining Reddit on April 1, 2016. Looks like the joke was on you, Iranian paymasters. Keep cashing them checks, suarezanton!

According to her user history, emilyward2017 posted 15 news articles to Reddit in her relatively brief tenure on the site, the vast majority of which were barely engaged with at all by the users of r/conspiracy, r/politics, r/worldnews, r/news, and r/syriancivilwar. “ran’s [sic] foreign minister urges Europe to defy US if Trump sinks nuclear deal,” read the title of one of her most commented-upon submissions, an article from the Guardian. (It got seven comments.) This article also features emilyward2017’s lone instance of comment-section engagement, as far as I can tell:

A user asks "Ran?" in reference to the post title. emilyward2017 responds, "Iran..." A third poster scolds, "Why haven't you deleted this and resubmitted it with a corrected title yet?"
Reddit

So much for her! User alessia_80s was much more effective in her time on the site, racking up 45,289 karma points since joining Aug. 1, 2017. This user tended to spam multiple groups with the same #Resistance-related links—some of which were more credible than others. “Tramp to break forward,” reads the headline of one of the Liberty Front Press links she submitted to the subreddit r/AntiTrumpAlliance. “Given the fact that Muller has gained a lot of evidence about the relevance of the Tramp election campaign, Tramp’s lawyers are seeking to question the authority of the investigation with a false claim,” read the lede of the story on the Liberty Front Press website. Ah, yes, President Tramp—or, I should say, President Drampf. Alessia_80s occasionally commented on threads that had nothing to do with Donald J. Tramp, like this thread about a GIF of a seal rolling down a hill. “why nobody said said it? OK, I’ll say: ‘They see me rolling, they hatin, ’ ” alessia_80s wrote. The comment received -1 points, which was honestly more than it deserved.

User anzfp was a bit better at Reddit than his colleagues. He actually used the site, for one thing, and he didn’t spam the same link to several subreddits at once. That doesn’t mean that he was persuasive or convincing, though. “Wow, even Harvard proves this,” he commented on a thread in r/conspiracy titled “Harvard Study Confirms Fluoride Reduces Children’s IQ.” “Interesting. LET’S PRAY FOR A WORLD WITHOUT WAR,” he commented on a post in r/worldnews about President Obama’s 2016 visit to Cuba. His own posts were similarly unmemorable. “From presidents to mad dogs, Israel is an apartheid state,” read the title of a link from  that he submitted to the subreddit r/inthenews. The other commenters there didn’t buy it: “With quotes like this from the article: ‘Greasy, grovelling politicians like him who are in the sway of Tel Aviv’ One can be assured it is unbiased and factual. /s,” wrote one. /s, indeed.

User Homaeefar is my personal favorite of the bunch. He posted a lot about the Middle East, as you might expect, but he also engaged with Reddit outside the parameters of his mission in a way that his colleagues did not. When r/AskReddit asked “What song makes you want to turn up the volume?,” Homaeefar chimed right in with his selection: “White Flag by Dido.” During the 2016 presidential primaries, he joined all the rest of us in dunking on Jeb Bush by commenting on a thread titled “Jeb Bush Says He’ll Give Democrats ‘A Warm Kiss.’ ” “I wonder what else he’ll do for democrats… maybe he’ll offer them a Blow-Jeb!” Homaeefar wrote. (Take that, Jeb Bush!) You wouldn’t necessarily call Homaeefar assimilated, per se, but you also wouldn’t necessarily think that he was from Iran. Well, except for this one clue he left:

In response to the question, "How are you different from the average redditor," user Homaeefer says, "I live in Iran."
Reddit

You know something? Maybe our institutions are safer from the threat of foreign interference than we tend to believe.