Facebook removed more than 20 accounts on Facebook and Instagram in October that were secretly controlled by the Iranian government and were aimed at dividing Americans and Israelis around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to weaken support for Israel, according to Facebook and a think tank that studies extremism.
The accounts and pages fall under the category of “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” social media elements that hide their connections to each other and to their original source. The deceptive elements violate Facebook’s terms and conditions and U.S. law, when they involve foreign countries.
The content focused on Saudi Arabia’s activities in the Middle East and an alleged massacre at Eurovision, an international song contest, hosted by Israel in 2019, said Facebook in an announcement Tuesday.
This kind of state-sponsored disinformation campaign is most commonly associated with Russia’s efforts to influence U.S. elections, but such efforts are also central to attempts, like Iran’s, to influence policy or public opinion.
“The information space is definitely a new field of war and combat, and it’s also a really cheap one,” said Chloe Colliver, the head of digital policy and strategy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “There’s no real reason for a government or a state that wants to either drive polarization or sow a certain ideology or undermine another nation state not to try to get involved in this at the moment, because the barrier to entry is so low.”
Iran and Israel have had a long-simmering rivalry around the issues of Israeli statehood, nuclear weapons and the countries’ relationships to groups like Hezbollah.
While Facebook released very few examples of the content removed last month, the Iranian posts generally are centered around cartoon formats, many with antisemitic images of Jewish characters and pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli messages, said ISD’s Colliver.
The platform said it was tipped off to this tranche of fake pages by the FBI.
The removal of the pages is part of a years-long crackdown by Facebook, and a more recent focus by the Justice Department, on secret Iranian accounts and pages, as well as accounts tied to other nations that use disinformation to influence opinion in the U.S. and in other countries.
The Justice Department announced in October that it seized four domain names used by the same network to spread Iranian propaganda designed to “influence United States domestic and foreign policy.”
Facebook has removed 2,782 pages, groups and accounts since 2018 that were tied to the Iranian government, part of a broader removal of 23,608 pages, groups and accounts across Facebook and Instagram that were part of a shadow network of social media elements operated by some secret source over those two years.
Networks tied to Iran put out 2,782 of those pages, groups and accounts in 2019 alone.
Facebook was originally notified about Iranian influence in disguise on social media in 2018 by a cybersecurity firm, FireEye, which identified both anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian themes, but also content supportive of policies favorable to Iran, like the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.
Those campaigns continued, however. The sources most frequently responsible for the deceptive content on Facebook and Instagram are Russian and Iranian actors, said a report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Colliver also stressed that Facebook’s efforts to remove the deceitful content are often motivated by political or other pressure, so there could be coordinated, inauthentic behavior the platform has not discovered — and about a third of networks were found by an external tip.
Iran, in addition to secretly disseminating posts related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is also involved in a global disinformation campaign about COVID-19, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
“The regime accused the United States of conducting biological warfare, published distorted public-health data, exaggerated its achievements, and falsely blamed sanctions for its own mismanagement of the pandemic” using international forums, traditional media and social media, said a June report.
American officials also accused Iran last week of sending emails to voters in swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida that purported to be from the far-right Proud Boys telling voters to cast their ballots for President Donald Trump.
Iran is secretly running anti-Israel Facebook pages