Iranian Influence Operation Targets Internet Users Around the World

A mural on the wall of the former US embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran. US President Donald Trump has imposed biting sanctions on Iran, triggering a mix of anger, fear and defiance

A Reuters analysis published on Tuesday concluded that Iran employs a sophisticated network of websites and social media accounts to influence public opinion around the world, much as Russia does.

The Iranian effort is reportedly structured similarly to Russia’s influence operation, and is “significantly bigger than previously identified.”

Reuters noted it has discovered “dozens of social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube” that appear to be part of the Iranian network, which began to unravel after Facebook banned hundreds of accounts linked to the Russian and Iranian governments.

The size of the Iranian network surprised Facebook investigators, and Reuters said it’s even larger than they initially believed:

U.S.-based cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc and Israeli firm ClearSky reviewed Reuters’ findings and said technical indicators showed the web of newly-identified sites and social media accounts – called the International Union of Virtual Media, or IUVM – was a piece of the same campaign, parts of which were taken down last week by Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc.

IUVM pushes content from Iranian state media and other outlets aligned with the government in Tehran across the internet, often obscuring the original source of the information such as Iran’s PressTV, FARS news agency and al-Manar TV run by the Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

Analysts described the Iranian network as louder and clumsier than Russia’s propaganda machine, but somehow the Iranian clunker ran for a very long time without social media watchdogs noticing its existence:

Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who has previously analyzed disinformation campaigns for Facebook, said the IUVM network displayed the extent and scale of the Iranian operation.

“It’s a large-scale amplifier for Iranian state messaging,” Nimmo said. “This shows how easy it is to run an influence operation online, even when the level of skill is low. The Iranian operation relied on quantity, not quality, but it stayed undetected for years.”

That is even more remarkable because IUVM advertises its existence. It has a website that lists “confronting with remarkable arrogance, Western governments and Zionism front activities” as one of its goals. That goal is probably supposed to read “confronting the remarkable arrogance of Western governments,” but it is more accurate and much more amusing as it stands.

Reuters related a statement from Twitter that it has suspended a total of 770 suspicious accounts for “sharing divisive social commentary,” fewer than 100 of them purportedly located in the United States. YouTube terminated IUVM’s account at some point during the last week for violating its terms of service.

The Washington Free Beacon reported on Wednesday that two Iranian agents have been arrested on charges of running an intelligence operation against Jewish, Israeli, and Iranian opposition groups in California.

An unnamed U.S. official linked the arrests to Iran’s online influence network, warning that Iran maintains “vast espionage and influence operations in the United States.”

“The Trump administration has been warning since day one that some of the windfall Iran got from the nuclear deal has been going into malign cyber operations,” this official allegedly told the Free Beacon. “The propaganda network that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube uncovered was doubling as a hacking network that had been ramping up in the last couple of years.”

Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) echoed that point: “This is the tip of the iceberg. This is not a surprise and this is a result of the Iran regime getting financial support from the Obama administration in the Iran deal.”


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