Future Tense

Iran’s Social Media Propaganda Campaign Was Bad at Both Propaganda and Social Media

We found the tweets and they are … kind of weird.

Anti-American mural depicts a skeletonized Statue of Liberty skeleton on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran in December 2015.
An anti-American mural depicts a skeletonized Statue of Liberty skeleton on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran in December 2015. Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images

If you visit the website of Liberty Front Press, you might get the impression that it is, as its About Us page reads, an activist news site that’s working “in support of the oppressed and the downtrodden” by publishing stories ignored by the greedy mainstream press. There, the site’s makers ask readers to donate, but there’s no link to give money. From there, click around and you’ll find a raft of news stories mostly copied and pasted from other sites, like the Hill, the Guardian, and Time. There are some stories that don’t seem to have been purloined (though they don’t have bylines), like one piece titled “Netanyahu’s Fake Claims About Iran’s Nuclear Program: Netanyahu’s Own Secret Nuclear Weapons.” The site looks sketchy but not that sketchy, especially if you arrived at it via a link on Reddit or Facebook.

But on Tuesday night, the world learned that Liberty Freedom Press isn’t actually an activist news site that relies on donations to pay the bills: It’s a front for an Iranian state media disinformation campaign. Facebook revealed that it had launched an investigation into Liberty Front Press and its associated accounts based on a tip from cybersecurity firm FireEye, which led Facebook to remove 652 fake accounts and pages, most of which originated in Iran. Soon after, Twitter announced it had suspended 284 accounts, many likewise based in Iran, that were engaging in “coordinated manipulation,” and YouTube deleted the Liberty Front Press channel too. Then, after some quick digging, Slate also found the Iranian group’s fingerprints on sites like Pinterest and Reddit, as well as some tweets that were saved in the Internet Archive.

Liberty Front Press was apparently designed to tap into liberal resentment against Trump while advancing pro-Iranian foreign policy narratives via social media. The Iranian nuclear agreement, for example, was a frequent topic, as were stories about Stormy Daniels. But a look at some of the activity on social media that’s still active suggests that the Iranian fake-news group wasn’t exactly masterful at making its stories go viral, though it clearly tried. For the most part, it littered its obscure corners of the web with awkward hashtags, absurd memes, and tangent-prone Reddit threads.

Judging by propaganda effort’s cached and archived Twitter activity, it seems that most of the tweets followed in the same anti-Trump vein as the Liberty Front Press posts on the other platforms. The tweets also align more closely with “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian” narratives that FireEye observed from the group’s Facebook activity. Whoever was running the 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. A tweet about a gang fight in Paris featured the hashtags #MillennialOlympicEvents and #WednesdayWisdom (though, to be fair, it was posted on a Wednesday). These hashtag hijinks do not appear to have done the tweets any favors, as most of them only received a few likes and retweets.

Liberty Front Press tweet.
Screenshot from Twitter.

On Facebook, the Iranian fake activist and news pages used memes to help forward their political agenda—as revealed in examples shared by Facebook Wednesday. One, from a page called “The British Left,” included a parody on the film The Notebook, only instead of a man and a woman staring into each other’s eyes in the rain, it’s Kim Jung-un and Donald Trump with their heads superimposed over the original actors. The name on the film poster reads “The Nukebook.” Another from the same page jokes that there are new Brexit postage stamps out tomorrow and features some clever graphic design of a stamp illustrated with a person shooting themselves in the foot. There was also an Iranian fake activist page called Patriotic Palestine Front that featured memes about Israeli violence in Palestine, like one about Palestinian activist Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, who protested Israeli occupation and was murdered by Israeli troops. (Facebook didn’t reveal the share or like counts of these memes, as it did when it revealed a trove of Russian troll posts that populated its platform during the 2016 campaign.) Another, from an Iranian sham group called Progressive Front, shared a meme showing Michelle Obama holding a sign that reads, “An Immigrant Took My Job.”

Facebook post of a fake movie poster modeled on "The Notebook" saying "The Nukebook," with Kim Jong-un and Trump holding each other in the rain.
One of the memes from the Iranian Facebook disinformation cache. Facebook

There are currently more than 200 posts on Reddit spanning from July 2017 to March 2018 that contain links to articles from Liberty Front Press’ website. The bulk of the posts discuss the possibility of a Trump impeachment and appeared in left-leaning subreddits like r/esist and r/SandersForPresident, though the articles also cover U.K. Labour politics, Iranian foreign policy, and other international affairs. The most popular post, with 1,630 net upvotes, is titled “Susan Sarandon: ‘We Would Be At War’ If ‘Very Dangerous’ Hillary Clinton Was Elected,’ ” and is one of the few pro-Trump entries on the Liberty Front Press website. About a half-dozen accounts were responsible for posting most of the Liberty Front Press links on Reddit, though it’s unclear whether these users were knowingly involved in the disinformation campaign.

Liberty Front Press has a considerably smaller footprint on Pinterest, with only a dozen pins split between two boards. Most of the posts just contain links to videos on the group’s now-defunct YouTube channel with titles like “Everything You Need to Know about Impeachment” and “Trump Recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital.” The account also posted memes and political cartoons lampooning the likes of Roy Moore and Sean Spicer.

Without seeing the Facebook share numbers or the old tweets that were removed, it’s hard to know how far the Iranian propaganda efforts traveled. But Facebook did share that, in total, about 155,000 Facebook users followed at least one of the Liberty Front Press–affiliated accounts—no small number. But looking at the tweets that we were able to recover and the sample of posts that were shared by Facebook, the groups don’t appear to have mastered the art of stoking political divides with the same fluency that Russian trolls exercised in their social media misinformation campaign. While it’s true that many Americans and British people are likely extremely worried about nuclear weapons in Iran and in North Korea, it’s not exactly a hot-button issue. Russian memes, on the other hand, focused on some of the most pressing cultural and political issues in the U.S., like racial justice, guns, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. The Iranian disinformation campaign was clearly more focused on issues important to Iran than issues that would stoke American unrest.

But perhaps the biggest tell that these trolls weren’t exactly social media mavens was their choice of hashtags on Twitter. One tweet from Liberty Front Press from March about how the survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, were receiving threats on social media included the hashtags #HappyBirthdayJustinBieber, #DadBodIn5Words, #TreasuresFoundInAHotPocket, #TheXFiles, and #ACSVersace. Maybe these topics were trending on Twitter at the time, but throwing them all into the same tweet sharing a story about the aftermath of a shooting certainly wasn’t going to give it a boost. Anyone even remotely tuned into American social media culture probably would’ve known that.