The Industry

Iranian Propagandists Are Getting Better at Impersonating Americans on Facebook

War room leader for Brazil elections Lexi Sturdy works in Facebook's 'War Room,' during a media demonstration on October 17, 2018, in Menlo Park, California. - The freshly launched unit at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters is the nerve center for the fight against misinformation and manipulation of the largest social network by foreign actors trying to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere. The war room, which will ramp up activity for the November 6 midterm US elections, is the most concrete sign of Facebook's efforts to weed out misinformation. (Photo by NOAH BERGER / AFP)        (Photo credit should read NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook’s “War Room” is supposed to catch this kind of stuff.
NOAH BERGER/Getty Images

On Friday, Facebook announced that it had removed yet another batch of pages and accounts from its platforms that pretended to be U.S. activist groups. These Facebook and Instagram accounts were made in Iran, like the more than 600 pages and accounts that the company removed in August. Unlike that earlier batch, Facebook has not linked the newly disclosed accounts to Iranian state media, though the company says it is still investigating. Whatever these pages’ provenance is, it’s clear from looking at the kinds of content they shared that they had a political motive.

The pages that Facebook removed on Friday had names like “No racism no war,” “Wake Up America,” and “Thirst for Truth,” and it appears they were posting content well into this year, touching on hot-button issues like the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, as seen in sample posts shared by Facebook. Facebook further shared data on some of the accounts it removed with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, which reported that many of the pages taken down had a substantial reach. Although Facebook says that only 1.02 million accounts followed one of the pages, the data retrieved from the Atlantic Council shows that many of these pages were able to reach many more millions of people. One of the pages, “I Need Justice Now,” had raked in more than 13 million views on its videos, and the page” No racism no war“ had logged more than 10 million video views.

The content that was intercepted by Facebook this time, unlike much of what was shared in August, appeared to be more attuned to what an actual American following political news might do on social media. The post about Brett Kavanaugh that Facebook included in its sample set, for example, came from the account “No racism no war,” which posted a cartoon of the Justice testifying in front of Congress with black men sitting behind him in the audience wearing shirts and hoodies with the names of black people who had been killed by police, like “Eric Garner,” “Tamir Rice,” and “Trayvon Martin.” The comic features Justice Kavanaugh with a talk bubble that reads, “My life has been destroyed by unproven allegations without a trial!” to which the character in the hoodie that says Trayvon responds, “That’s rough, bro.” A reverse image search of this cartoon shows that it was once tweeted by the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University Law School, but it’s unclear which account tweeted the cartoon first.

In contrast, the pages from Iranian fake accounts revealed in August primarily focused on issues of importance to Iran, like the Iranian nuclear agreement and U.S.-Israeli relations. Some of the tweets from the associated Twitter accounts included an awkward array of hashtags affixed to the end of tweets about totally unrelated news events. For example, one tweet about gun control actions taken by the Florida senate included the hashtags #TheBachelor and #StarWarsRebels.

Many of the pages that were removed in this recent purge, according to the Atlantic Council, were created this year and were actively posting this fall. Like the content made by Russian trolls, these posts were clearly intended to widen social and political divides in America. The Iranian accounts removed Friday were primarily focused on riling up Americans on the political left, and had far fewer pages aimed at conservatives, which Russian efforts have largely (but not exclusively) focused on. Though the Iranian accounts were generally fairly convincing impersonations of politically concerned Americans, some showed signs that an American might not be at the helm. One meme posted by the Iranian page “Voice of Change,” shared by the Atlantic Council, would only make sense if it was read from right to left, like in the way Farsi is read.

A meme shared on the Iranian run inauthentic Facebook page "Voice of Change"
A meme shared on the Iranian run inauthentic Facebook page “Voice of Change”
Facebook/The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab

In a call with reporters on Friday, Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said that the company detected these accounts through its own internal investigations last week, meaning that the time between detecting accounts, removing them, and alerting the public is rapidly decreasing. Remember, Facebook reportedly first learned about Russian interference in the election in the fall of 2016. In May of 2017, the company told Time that “no evidence” of Russian agents buying ads on Facebook to target specific users with divisive content. Then in September, the company finally published a blog post detailing that it had found 470 inauthentic accounts pretending to be U.S. political groups from the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency, which was working to stir social and political divisions ahead of the 2016 elections. Coming forward about Iranian inauthentic activity it found in the span of a week is a marked improvement for Facebook.

But the fact that this activity is still popping up just days before the 2018 midterm elections is unsettling. And as Facebook gets better and faster at detecting this kind of activity on its platform, it remains very possible that the trolls are going to better at covering their tracks, too.