Facebook Removes Iran-based Assets
Facebook removed a number of assets operating from Iran that amplified Iranian state messaging and that targeted the United States 2016 presidential election in a manner similar to operations run from Russia in 2016.
In total, Facebook and Instagram removed 92 assets — pages, groups, and accounts — that targeted U.S., British, and Saudi politics and elections using false identities to pose as local pages. These online assets were taken down for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” when groups, pages, and accounts mislead people through deceptive behavior.
The assets dealt with a range of issues, including promoting the messages of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, and attacking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (also commonly referred to by his initials, “MBS”). Most striking, however, the assets also briefly forayed into U.S. electoral politics, with short and ineffective campaigns against Hillary Clinton and for Donald Trump.
The Iranian election interference strongly resembled the Russian operation of 2016 in approach and demographic targeting, but the Iranian pages were much less effective and attracted very few followers — just 595 spread across five election-related pages.
Iranian Political Interests
The takedown began with a tip from online investigation group FireEye. On May 28, FireEye published an analysis of the operation’s activity on Twitter and other online sites, concluding with low confidence that it was “organized in support of Iranian political interests.” Based on the tipoff, Facebook identified related assets on its own platform and shared a subset of these with the DFRLab prior to their removal. Facebook concluded that their inauthentic behavior “originated in Iran.”
In a blog post, Facebook stated:
“The Page admins and account owners typically posted content in English or Arabic without a focus on a particular country, although some Pages focused on the U.S. or U.K. The posts from these Pages and accounts discussed topics like public figures and politics in the U.S. and U.K., U.S. secessionist movements, Islam, Arab minorities in Iran and the influence of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.”
Much of the content reviewed by the DFRLab fit this pattern of messaging consistent with Iranian government narratives. One page, for example, was titled “Resign you murderer” and focused on MBS, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, one of Iran’s chief regional rivals. Active in late 2015, it accused MBS of personal responsibility for the deaths of children in Yemen, sometimes with graphic imagery of dead children.
Other pages promoted the sayings of Ayatollah Khamenei and criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza and the Palestinian territories. One, “Meet the Beauty of Islam,” operated in English. A second with the concise name of “Les messages conçus dans le discours de Khamenei aux jeunes occidentaux” (translated from the French, “The messages conceived in Khamenei’s speech to young Westerners”) operated in French but was minimally active, only posting at the end of 2015 and focusing solely on the content of two Khamenei speeches addressed to young Westerners that year.
One Arabic-language page, @AlArabyi, repeatedly posted links to the website of Saudi-funded broadcaster AlArabiya.net. The broadcaster’s website links to a different, verified Facebook account, @AlArabiya, with over 22 million followers. The Iranian page used similar visual branding to the verified account and largely shared content from the website, making it likely that it was an attempt to pass pro-Iranian messaging under the guise of the Saudi broadcaster. It stopped posting in September 2015, by which time it had over 5,000 followers — by far the highest follower number in the takedown set to which the DFRLab had access.
The same applied to the pages that focused on U.S. politics in general, and the 2016 presidential election in particular. These pages were striking for their resemblance to the parallel Russian operation but came nowhere near it in scale or user response.
The Iranian operation also had targets outside the United States, with one of the pages, “Republicanism for Great Britain,” dedicating itself to a campaign against the British monarchy. The page featured mordant and vitriolic posts directed at the Royal Family.
The Facebook pages and groups to which the DFRLab had access removed as a part of the company’s May 28 takedown covered a wide breadth of topics. Some focused on the Middle East, with a strong interest in attacking Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, in particular, or promoting Iran and its virtues. Others conveyed an intention to infiltrate domestic American politics concurrently or sometimes even earlier than the 2016 Russian effort. Still others took aim at the supposed corruption of the British Royal Family. Despite their varied focus, they were all similar in two important ways: they were all relatively limited in lifespan, being abandoned after only a short tenure of operation, and they were quite limited in reach, usually with a very low follower count and even lower engagement rate.