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Twitter And Facebook Crack Down On Iran-Linked Disinformation Scheme

Twitter and Facebook announced Tuesday that they had removed thousands of Iran-linked deceptive accounts in a crackdown on a disinformation network.

In a statement, Twitter’s head of site integrity, Yoel Roth, said the company eliminated “more than 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran” earlier this month.

“These accounts employed a range of false personas to target conversations about political and social issues in Iran and globally,” Roth said. “Some engaged directly through public replies with politicians, journalists, and others.”

Several accounts, Roth added, falsely claimed to be affiliated with U.S. media outlets, including Newsday, the New York Daily News and The Seattle Times.

In a statement of its own, Facebook said that on Tuesday it “removed 51 Facebook accounts, 36 Pages, seven Groups and three Instagram accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran.”

The company defines “coordinated inauthentic behavior” as occurring “when groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing.”

Facebook said those involved in the activity “purported to be located in the US and Europe, used fake accounts to run Pages and Groups, and impersonated legitimate news organizations in the Middle East.” 

Like the now-deleted Twitter accounts, the individuals also claimed to be journalists, some even representing themselves with other personas and attempting to contact reporters, policymakers, Iranian dissidents, academics or other public figures, Facebook said.

In total, the pages had garnered roughly 21,000 followers, and the groups had about 1,900 members.

The social media giant was notified about the suspicious activity by private U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye and launched an internal investigation.

In a blog post Tuesday, FireEye said it had “investigated a network of English-language social media accounts that engaged in inauthentic behavior and misrepresentation and that we assess with low confidence was organized in support of Iranian political interests.”

According to the firm, the accounts used fake American identities and spread both liberal and conservative views. Some of the phony personas, FireEye said, included “a handful of Republican political candidates that ran for House of Representatives seats in 2018.”

Though Roth acknowledged that the report had emerged the day of his announcement, he noted that Twitter was not given the report or the findings.

FireEye could not determine whether the activity was linked to the Iranian government but said it will continue to investigate.

In October 2018, Facebook announced it uncovered and deleted dozens of Iran-linked pages, accounts and groups that had been created to breed division and discord, and had amassed more than 1 million followers.

Similar to Tuesday’s explanation, the company pointed to coordinated inauthentic activity as the cause for the takedowns, finding that the individuals behind the activity were posing as U.S. and British citizens while promoting politically charged messages.

Overall, social media companies have faced scrutiny for a lack of tougher action against disinformation on their sites, a point recently illustrated by Facebook’s refusal to delete doctored footage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that made the congresswoman appear as if she were drunk during a speech. The smear attack has been used by her right-wing opponents, yet Facebook has stood by its decision to not remove the video.

Facebook and Twitter have also faced significant backlash for failing to fully contain Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election by using so-called troll farms to inflame political tensions online.

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