Iran’s mischief online

Iran cannot claim to be a victim of outside conspiracies when it is conspiring to fuel tensions and spread lies and distortions.
Sunday 02/09/2018
A news conference at the US Justice Department to announce nine Iranians charged with conducting a cyber theft campaign, last March. (Reuters)
A news conference at the US Justice Department to announce nine Iranians charged with conducting a cyber theft campaign, last March. (Reuters)

Major social media platforms and news organisations are uncovering increasing evidence of Iranian attempts to manipulate online activity.

The brazen interference should not come as a shock. As noted by Ariane M. Tabatabai in Foreign Affairs: “The Islamic Republic’s disinformation tactics are as old as the regime itself.”

In recent years, Iran seems to have maintained its disinformation strategy although it has updated its tactics.

Facebook announced the removal of 652 pages, groups and accounts “that originated in Iran” for what it described as “coordinated inauthentic behaviour (that) targeted people across multiple internet services in the Middle East, Latin America, UK and US.”

With the help of FireEye, a US cybersecurity firm, Facebook has identified an Iranian government-linked online network misnamed “Liberty Front Press.”

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, disclosed that accounts linked to “Liberty Front Press” “posed as news and civil society organisations sharing information in multiple countries without revealing their true identity.”

The mischief, however, went beyond disinformation as the Iranian front also “engaged in traditional cybersecurity attacks, including attempts to hack people’s accounts and spread malware.”

Facebook’s announcement was followed by successive disclosures by Twitter regarding similar Iranian activities.

“We have suspended 284 accounts from Twitter for engaging in coordinated manipulation,” Twitter said in a tweet August 22. “Based on our existing analysis, it appears many of these accounts originated from Iran.”

The number of accounts suppressed by Twitter rose to 770 when the company announced the following week it had removed nearly 500 additional accounts originating in Iran.

The accounts were operated by the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), which pushed material from official media in Tehran such as PressTV and Fars news agency as well as Lebanese Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV.

Reuters said the IUVM network operated on a global scale in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Russian, Hindi, Azerbaijani, Turkish and Spanish.

There are many implications of this Iranian ploy, not just for cybersecurity experts but policymakers and diplomats as well.

There is legitimate reason for the United States to worry about the risk of Iranian interference in November’s midterm elections.

“As Americans prepare to return to the voting booths this fall, Washington would be well advised to look into Iran’s disinformation capabilities and intentions before it’s too late,” cautioned Tabatabai.

The scope of the problem is much wider than the United States, however. The multilingual approach of the Iranian propaganda drive betrays global influence-peddling ambitions.

For the Arab world, specifically, there is a strong case for being very wary.

As Facebook’s revelations show, Tehran is using social media to misrepresent its regional policies and promote its hostile sectarian agenda. Social media manipulation is just another manifestation of the pernicious activities pursued by Tehran at the expense of regional peace and security.

Iran cannot claim to be a victim of outside conspiracies when it is conspiring to fuel tensions and spread lies and distortions.               

6