Thu, Aug 30, 2018 - Page 1 News List

Iran-based political influence operation: persistent, global

Reuters, LONDON and WASHINGTON

An apparent Iranian influence operation targeting Internet users worldwide is significantly bigger than previously identified, encompassing a sprawling network of anonymous Web sites and social media accounts in 11 languages.

Facebook and other companies last week said multiple social media accounts and Web sites were part of an Iranian project to covertly influence public opinion in other countries.

An analysis has identified 10 more sites and dozens of social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

US-based cybersecurity firm FireEye and Israeli firm ClearSky reviewed the findings and said technical indicators showed that the Web of newly identified sites and social media accounts — called the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM) — was a piece of the same campaign, parts of which were last week taken down by Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet.

IUVM pushes content from Iranian state media and other outlets aligned with the government in Tehran across the Internet, often obscuring the original source of the information such as Iran’s PressTV, Fars News Agency and al-Manar TV run by the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah.

PressTV, Fars News Agency, al-Manar TV and representatives for the Iranian government did not respond to requests for comment.

The Iranian mission to the UN last week dismissed accusations of an Iranian influence campaign as “ridiculous.”

The extended network of disinformation highlights how multiple state-affiliated groups are exploiting social media to manipulate users and further their geopolitical agendas, and how difficult it is for tech companies to guard against political interference on their platforms.

A US grand jury last month indicted 12 Russians, whom prosecutors said were intelligence officers, on charges of hacking political groups in the 2016 US presidential election.

US officials have said that Russia, which has denied the allegations, could also attempt to disrupt the mid-term elections in November.

The IUVM network displayed the extent and scale of the Iranian operation, said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who has previously analyzed disinformation campaigns for Facebook.

“It’s a large-scale amplifier for Iranian state messaging,” Nimmo said. “This shows how easy it is to run an influence operation online, even when the level of skill is low. The Iranian operation relied on quantity, not quality, but it stayed undetected for years.”

Facebook is still investigating accounts and pages linked to Iran, company spokesman Jay Nancarrow said.

“This is an ongoing investigation,” he said. “We’re also glad to see that the information we and others shared last week has prompted additional attention on this kind of inauthentic behavior.”

IUVM did not respond to multiple e-mails or social media messages requesting comment.

However, the organization does not conceal its aims. Documents on the main IUVM Web site said its headquarters are in Tehran and its objectives include “confronting with remarkable arrogance, Western governments and Zionism front activities.”

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