Facebook, Twitter remove thousands of accounts linked to Iran

Facebook, Twitter remove thousands of accounts linked to Iran
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Facebook and Twitter on Thursday announced that they have removed thousands of accounts associated with an Iranian disinformation campaign across their platforms. 

Facebook said it has removed 262 Iranian-linked pages, 356 accounts and three groups from Facebook and 162 accounts from Instagram, which it owns. And Twitter announced a takedown of 2,617 accounts it believed to have originated in Iran, along with thousands more from Russia and Venezuela.

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"The Page administrators and account owners typically represented themselves as locals, often using fake accounts, and posted news stories on current events," Facebook said in a statement. 

In a blog post, Facebook said that it discovered activity on both Facebook and Instagram and that the accounts had spent around $30,000 on advertising. The activity on those platforms dated back as early as 2010.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, said on a call with reporters that the discovery was made due to the help of partnerships with other companies like Twitter.

Twitter said it had found almost 1,200 Venezuela-linked accounts that appeared to be part of a "state-backed influence campaign targeting domestic audiences," and another 764 accounts that appear to be part of an influence campaign similar to the one conducted by a Russian troll farm.

Both companies said they had shared the information with law enforcement and with Congress.

Gleicher told reporters that Twitter and Facebook shared information with one another while seeking to identify malicious actors on their own platforms. He said this "coordination means we’re better able to find [misinformation] more quickly and remove it more quickly." 

The majority of the Iran-linked accounts promoting misinformation represented themselves as locals, according to Facebook. These fake accounts often repurposed Iranian state media’s reporting on regional conflicts, including Israel-Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. A significant portion of the disinformation was related to U.S. involvement in regional conflicts, Gleicher said. 

He said Facebook cannot determine if the Iranian government was behind the campaign.

"We can prove and feel confident that this is content emanating from Iran controlled by actors in Iran," he said. "Much of the content being posted is being reposted by Iranian state media."

Twitter's announcement on Thursday also marks one of the first times that a social media company has identified significant disinformation emanating from Venezuela. The news comes amid an escalating conflict in Venezuela, where U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó has declared himself the country’s interim president in an effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro. 

"We are unable to definitively tie the accounts located in Venezuela to information operations of a foreign government against another country," Twitter's head of site integrity, Yoel Roth, said in the blog post. "However, these accounts are another example of a foreign campaign of spammy content focused on divisive political themes, and the behavior we uncovered is similar to that utilized by potential Russian IRA accounts."

"Additionally, we have removed 1,196 accounts located in Venezuela which appear to be engaged in a state-backed influence campaign targeting domestic audiences," he added. "We have shared information on these accounts with our industry peers, and continue to investigate malicious activity originating in Venezuela, both targeting audiences within Venezuela and abroad."

Both Facebook and Twitter have ongoing probes to root out misinformation from their platforms. They have announced similar large-scale removals before.

Google has also previously removed hundreds of accounts linked to Iranian misinformation campaign efforts.

Updated at 3:43 p.m.