Jan 7, 2020 - Technology

How Iran's disinformation threat differs from Russia

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America "needs to be prepared for retaliation in the hard cyber space and soft information space" after killing Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, says a top expert at the Atlantic Council.

Why it matters: Iranian influence operations to-date have been different than other state-backed disinformation campaigns, particularly from Russia.

  • "This style is extremely different than Russia, which we know tries to infiltrate online communities and engage to cause more social chaos," says Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab within the Atlantic Council.
  • "The bulk of its foreign-focused operations have focused on amplifying regime propaganda by laundering it through undeclared fronts, such as websites and fake social-media profiles. There has been some divisive content, but this was a small proportion," says Ben Nimmo, the Director of Investigations at social media intelligence firm Graphika.

What's happening: As of Monday, the Lab had yet to spot any large-scale information operations directly attributable to the Iranian government beyond strong public statements, Brookie told Axios.

But Iran has a recent history of misinformation campaigns:

  • In January, Facebook and Twitter separately took down hundreds of accounts and pages linked to misinformation campaigns originating from Iran.
  • In May, Facebook said it removed dozens of additional accounts, groups and pages — on its main app and on Instagram — involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran.
  • In October, Facebook said that it again took down information campaigns originating in Iran on Facebook and Instagram. The activity from the Iranian campaigns focused primarily on the U.S., and on some French-speaking audiences in North Africa, Facebook said.

The big picture: Iran has spent years building an online influence apparatus to help further its foreign policy objectives. These sophisticated campaigns are often built to effectively mimic real news and disappear quickly.

  • The "Endless Mayfly" propaganda campaign, which was uncovered last year by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, began in 2016.
  • The Iran-aligned network of fake or spoofed websites and online personas amplified narratives critical of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel.
  • It used fake articles on websites that were designed to look like real news outlets, like Bloomberg and The Guardian.

Yes, but: Experts warn that in time of increased escalation and tension, real, organic media posts expressing outrage can be easy to confuse with fake ones.

  • "Pro-Iran users certainly look like they're picking up on a common set of messaging - for example, there are a lot of references to US soldiers coming home in coffins," says Nimmo. "Some of the memes are taken from stock online sources, but some appear to be linked with more organised pro-regime groups, which suggests some sort of attempt to shape and drive the traffic, if not direct coordination."

What's next: The Lab is looking at the coverage of the topic by state-backed media and messaging laundromats like the International Union of Virtual Media, an Iranian internet disinformation group, says the Lab's Kanishk Karan.

  • Karan predicts that the other main effort of disinformation that could hit is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-backed trolling operations on Twitter or other platforms.

The bottom line: "There's a lot of anti-U.S. activity, but right now there isn't enough evidence to say that there's a large-scale coordinated operation going on," says Nimmo. 

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