London/New York: As the news broke Tuesday of an Iranian missile attack on bases in Iraq housing American troops, photographs immediately began circulating on social media falsely purporting to show the assault in action. Some of the pictures came from old military exercises in Russia, another showed a manipulated photo of an American aircraft carrier with troops standing in formation to spell the words “F— Iran.” It wasn’t always clear who was spreading the images or for what purpose, but at least some of them were being distributed by organizations with links to the Iranian regime.
The images were a reminder that modern geopolitical conflicts now inevitably include the rapid dissemination of misleading information online. Iran has been building the capacity to undertake significant disinformation campaigns for a decade, according to security firms who study the issue, and there’s widespread expectation that such an effort will be a part of the Iranian response to the Jan. 3 killing of Qassem Soleimani, which could continue despite seeming efforts to spare American lives during the missile strike.
But while there has been evidence of state-sponsored attempts to spread disinformation online in the last week, Iran is not taking full advantage of its capabilities, according to FireEye Inc., a security firm.
“They seem to be using components of it right now. It’s still really early days,” said Lee Foster, a manager for information operations analysis at FireEye. “They have the capacity to do a lot more than they’re doing right now.”
Iran realized the potential of social media as a political force as far back as 2009, when it banned Twitter in the face of anti-government protests. Iranian operations have targeted Western social media since at least 2014, with some accounts dating back as far as 2010, according to Ben Nimmo, director of investigations for social media monitoring company Graphika Inc. Iran has also been linked to a series of cyberattacks against Saudi Arabia, a casino owned by Sheldon Adelson and other targets.
Foster said Iran’s online influence campaigns are arguably even more extensive in terms of volume and global focus than those of Russia, whose activity during the 2016 presidential election elevated concern about disinformation to crisis levels. But the country hasn’t focused as much on U.S. elections, focusing instead on spreading the Iranian government’s talking points about Israel and Saudi Arabia.
— Kanishk Karan (@KaranKanishk) January 8, 2020
Traditionally, Iran has seen U.S. presidents as basically interchangeable, said Heather Williams, former deputy national intelligence officer for Iran with the National Intelligence Council. The strike against Soleimani “could cause them to feel that this president is a particular liability for them, and maybe there is some incentive for a different administration inside Washington in terms of U.S.-Iran relations,” said Williams, who is now a researcher at the Rand Corporation.
Some Iranian influence operations were on display as tensions ratcheted up before Soleimani’s death. Researchers say they’ve seen signs of inauthentic activity on Twitter, as well as Instagram and the messaging app Telegram. Many of the pro-Iranian accounts across these platforms have adopted the theme “hard revenge.”
“Out of all the platforms, the regime has spent most of its time trying to manipulate or control the narrative on Telegram,” said Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. Pro-Iranian government narratives have spread across Persian-language Telegram channels, and some appear to be controlled by bot accounts, according to Alimardani.
Kanishk Karan, a researcher with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said that he had identified a wave of more than 95,000 posts on Twitter featuring the hashtags #HardRevenge and #DeathToAmerica, which he said appeared to have been, at least in part, a coordinated effort.
Karan said he had also seen potential bot campaigns on Twitter pushing a narrative that supported the U.S. government’s position. Many accounts on both sides had been newly created, according to Karan, and had alphanumeric names—hallmarks of automated bot accounts. It is unclear precisely how many of these posts have been driven by automated accounts, and researchers caution that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between real and fake users.
Iran also uses lesser-known websites to spread government messaging. A writer named Elizabeth Tacher published an article on a site called usjournal.net on Dec. 31 that touted the Iranian general as one of the “most influential movers and shakers” of 2020. After his killing, the same author compared President Donald Trump to a dictator, called for him to be banned from Twitter, and warned of harsh retaliation from Iran.
Tacher has published more than 600 articles for usjournal.net, which claims to be a “novel progressive media base.” Her online profile states that she is an “an independent journalist and activist” who is studying culture at the California University of Pennsylvania. In fact, she doesn’t really exist, and her profile photograph was in fact that of a French actress.
FireEye identified the usjournal.net website, which did not respond to requests for comment, as a likely Iranian front organization in 2018. It continues to publish articles under Tacher’s name, promoting the Iranian government’s policies and slamming the country’s adversaries.
Usjournal.net has also published articles by real people, including John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based progressive think tank.
Feffer said that an anonymous email address associated with usjournal.net had contacted him in 2018 expressing interest in his work. “We accept no corporate or governmental financing or advertisements of any kind,” stated the email, which was seen by Bloomberg and did not mention Iran. “Our aim is to inspire action and advocacy on the human rights, social justice, media, spirituality and religion, equality and peace and more,” the message claimed.
The website subsequently published several of Feffer’s articles, which were critical of President Trump and warned about the possibility of a U.S.-Iran war.
Nimmo of Graphika described the activity online over the last week as fairly typical. “I have not yet seen signs of the kind of massive centralized operation,” he said. But he also cautioned that online activity can take time to plan and execute in the same way military attacks do. “It’s worth bearing in mind that big information operations are not necessarily that nimble,” he said. -Bloomberg