The Industry

Massive Facebook Propaganda Campaigns Aren’t Just for Russia Anymore

The social network revealed another Kremlin-backed disinformation effort—and three associated with Iran.

A lit sign is seen at the entrance to Facebook's corporate headquarters location in Menlo Park, California on March 21, 2018. 
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg vowed on March 21 to 'step up' to fix problems at the social media giant, as it fights a snowballing scandal over the hijacking of personal data from millions of its users. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Thumbs down to propaganda. JOSH EDELSON/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it had removed 652 fake pages and accounts that were using Facebook and Instagram to stir unrest and stoke divides on contentious political and social issues. Some of the accounts were associated with Iranian state media or otherwise originated in Iran—showing that other countries, not just Russia, have been active on Facebook for years in attempts to steer and manipulate political conversations in the United States and elsewhere. Many of these accounts were engaged in coordinated activity and were attempting to advance narratives in support of Iranian policy interests, like the Iranian nuclear deal, for example. In total, Facebook revealed four different investigations on Tuesday related to the removal of accounts and pages associated with state actors running inauthentic accounts, including more accounts associated with Russia.

In the case of the Iranian accounts, Facebook began its investigation after a receiving a tip from the cybersecurity research firm Fire Eye, which led Facebook to start investigating a group called “Liberty Front Press” and its affiliated network of accounts. Many of those accounts posed as independent media organizations, like one Facebook points out in its announcement on Tuesday called “Quest 4 Truth,” which Facebook says was linked to Press TV, a network affiliated with Iranian state media. Twitter has now removed the Liberty Front Press account, too, as has YouTube. Slate was able to locate active Liberty Front Press accounts on Pinterest; the website run by the sham news organization was still live as of Tuesday evening. Numerous links to Liberty Front Press can still be found on Reddit, largely in political groups that are opposed to Trump or are dedicated to discussing the U.K. Labour Party. Some of these articles appear to be written by the page’s administrators while others were pulled from U.S. news sites like the Hill and Time.

Liberty Front Press posted political content about a broad range of topics, including Iranian and Syrian relations, the Parkland school shooting, violence at a night club in Venezuela, the time a dog died in the overhead bin of a flight in March, and articles critical of President Trump. Facebook says that it removed 70 accounts, 74 Pages, and three groups related to Liberty Front Press on Facebook, plus another 76 accounts on Instagram. About 155,000 accounts on Facebook followed at least one of the Liberty Freedom Press accounts and on Instagram the fake pages run by the Iranian group had amassed about 48,000 followers of at least one of the Liberty Freedom Press pages. More than $6,000 was spent on ads by pages linked to the Iranian propaganda network between January 2015 and August 2018, though the first accounts from this suite of fake sites were created in 2013, meaning that these pages were running and potentially spreading malicious content for years.

Facebook also found 66 accounts and 12 pages on Facebook and nine accounts on Instagram that had some links to the Liberty Front Press campaign but were not only spreading information in order to sow discord in American political discourse. These pages, according to Facebook, posed as news organizations and engaged in cyberattacks on Facebook users, including hacking into people’s accounts and seeding malware. These pages did not buy ads and had courted about 15,000 users on Facebook that followed at least one account.

A third investigation by the social network found a suite of 168 inauthentic pages and 140 accounts on Facebook, as well as 31 fake accounts on Instagram, that were also operated from Iran but do not appear to be connected to Iranian state media. These groups together hosted 25 separate events and attracted 813,000 accounts that followed at least one of the pages on Facebook and 10,000 accounts that followed at least one of these pages on Instagram. The first of this set was created in 2011, and Facebook says that while most of the content was in Arabic and Farsi and shared content about Middle East politics, there were also accounts in this cluster that posted in English on U.S. and U.K. politics. Although Facebook’s ad tools are not supposed to be available in Iran because of U.S. sanctions, this cluster was also able to buy more than $6,000 in Facebook ads using U.S. dollars, Turkish lira, and Indian rupees, according to the company.

Finally, on Tuesday Facebook also shared that it found a collection of pages related to Russian military intelligence, which the company says are some of the same actors that were purged from Facebook for cybersecurity attacks two years ago, before the 2016 election. These accounts were mostly focused on politics in Syria and Ukraine spreading pro-Russian content and are unrelated to the efforts uncovered by the three investigations tied to Iran.

Last month, Facebook removed 32 fake pages that the company linked to “bad actors” but would not attribute to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-backed troll group that during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign created hundreds of Facebook and Instagram pages focused on widening political divides and helping the election efforts of Donald Trump. The Internet Research Agency was the topic of an indictment earlier this year from special counsel Robert Mueller investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia. Now with Iran in the mix, including pages that date back to 2011, it’s clear that countries with political motivations in the U.S. beyond Russia have been working American social media channels for some time—and not always with swaying an election in mind.

On a call with reporters on Tuesday, when asked if we should expect more announcements like this one in the near future, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the company has a number of investigations currently in the works. “We’ll update you when we know more,” he said.