It’s not the endorsement Facebook, Twitter or Google wants.
But the U.S.’s geopolitical adversaries appear to be in agreement: Silicon Valley’s biggest social media companies provide some of the best tools for spreading propaganda.
After months of attention paid to Russia’s influence campaign, Facebook revealed Tuesday that Iran has spent years surreptitiously promoting its interests through inauthentic accounts and pages.
The effort, which started five years before Donald Trump was elected president, consisted of three campaigns that masked Iranian authorities as ordinary citizens, independent news organizations and civil society groups. Facebook said the fake Iranian accounts and pages garnered close to 1 million followers.
The campaigns targeted Middle Eastern, U.S., British and Latin American audiences and often promoted “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as support for specific U.S. policies favorable to Iran, such as the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal,” according to FireEye, a cybersecurity firm that first tipped off Facebook about the suspicious network in July.
The Iranian government, like Russia’s, denied any involvement in a social media influence campaign. “Such claims are ridiculous and are part and parcel of U.S. public calls for regime change in Iran, and are an abuse of social media platforms,” Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, reportedly said.
Still, experts say Facebook’s allegations should remind democratic governments everywhere that social media poses an ongoing risk that will only grow without a coordinated effort to prevent manipulation.
“The main takeaway from Facebook's announcement is not just that Russia-style meddling is exportable, but that it's inevitable,” said Chris Meserole, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “If Moscow authored the playbook, Tehran read it word for word, and they won't be the only country to do so. Spreading disinformation on Facebook is so easy and effective that we need to assume every foreign adversary will now do it.”
Among the other potential threats is China, which has already been accused of meddling in Taiwanese and Australian politics and society. There’s no evidence Beijing has tried to undermine U.S. elections, but its state media is active on Facebook and Twitter — ironically, platforms that are banned in China.
Don’t expect the same barbed content as their counterparts at the Russian-government funded broadcaster RT, however. China Central Television’s Facebook page has most recently been promoting a dance production about the “Monkey King” and sharing tips on how to make bitter melon taste more palatable.
Still, the FBI has singled out China as the U.S.’s biggest threat when it comes to intelligence operations given its vast cyber capabilities and decades of industrial espionage in the U.S. Experts say Beijing has the sophistication to target U.S. social media at a time when relations between the two countries continue to sour over trade.
“China has the capacity to cause a lot more damage than Russia,” said Bret Schafer, a social media analyst for Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan national security advocacy group housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “But right now, we’re not seeing it directed at the U.S.”
Schafer said there’s reason to believe that social media companies are better prepared to tackle foreign interference than two years ago, which is crucial as the nation approaches the November midterms.
Facebook’s announcement Tuesday highlighted how far the company has come since appearing blindsided by Russian meddling in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Rather than dismissing the problem, Facebook is now sharing its investigative findings, which in this case resulted in the removal of 652 inauthentic pages, groups and accounts. (Facebook also disclosed an unrelated influence campaign linked to Russian military intelligence Tuesday.)
Shortly after, Twitter announced it had suspended 284 accounts associated with the Iranian network discovered on Facebook. Twitter and Facebook said they were working more closely with law enforcement and each other to root out misinformation. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, also removed Google Plus accounts tied to the Iranian network.
“The coordination is heartening,” Schafer said. “That’s where we need to be moving toward. Before, these companies would only look in their own backyards. But all this activity is happening across platforms.”
Schafer, who tracks Russian influence operations in real time, said activity has decreased since the 2016 election. He cited efforts by platforms to remove bots and bad actors. But the problem remains serious, he said. Russian-linked influence networks have most recently turned their attention to another inflammatory issue: the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, which has garnered mass attention in right wing media because the alleged killer of the University of Iowa student is an undocumented immigrant.
Despite being exposed, Russia and other bad actors won’t be dissuaded from exploiting social media. It’s simply too effective, experts say.
“It is easy, cheap, hard to detect and low-risk,” said Filippo Menczer, a professor at the Indiana University School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering who has researched the role of bots and fake news. And it’s “hard to trace back to the perpetrators.”
FireEye, the Milpitas, Calif., firm that alerted Facebook, said it could only accuse Iran with “moderate confidence” because influence operations are designed to muddy their origins. This, despite the fact the firm found Iranian phone numbers and links to a website designer in Tehran.
“There remains a remote possibility that some other actors may be responsible for this and have tried to frame other actors for it,” said Lee Foster, an information operations analyst with FireEye.
There’s also ample reason to believe the campaign emanated from Iran. Tehran is no stranger to propaganda. Its autocratic rulers have long used misinformation to maintain power and undermine its enemies, said Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran expert at Rand Corp.
“This regime was built upon disinformation,” Tabatabai said. “It’s just a different medium now.”
Sanctions and the dismantling of the nuclear deal have raised the stakes for Iran to win support abroad, especially as Washington and Europe remain divided on the issue.
Among the memes the Iranian network spread on Facebook were ones appealing to left-leaning Britons critical of Brexit and Trump. One was of a fake stamp commemorating the country’s departure from the European Union by depicting someone about to shoot himself in the foot. Another showed North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un embracing President Trump in a movie poster much like that of the romantic hit “The Notebook” but retitled “The Nukebook.”