Facebook has taken down a collection of fake accounts originating from Iran that were pumping out political propaganda—usually in internet meme form—to 1 million users in the US and the UK.
The misinformation campaign was partly focused on blasting President Trump and the Republican Party through the use of fake accounts pretending to be US and UK citizens. On Friday, the company said it deleted 82 pages, groups, and accounts on Facebook and Instagram that were tied to the campaign.
“Despite attempts to hide their true identities, a manual review of these accounts linked their activity to Iran,” Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher wrote in a blog post.
The social network first detected the activity a week ago, but the campaign has been posting political content mainly over the past year—some of which has been encouraging US citizens to vote for Democratic candidates. In total, the campaign attracted 1.02 million account follows through the Facebook pages it had created.
Although Facebook traced the fake accounts to Iran, the company found no direct links between the propaganda effort and the Iranian government. “We can’t say for sure who is responsible,” Gleicher added.
That said, Facebook did detect “some overlap” between the fake accounts and a separate Iranian state media-backed misinformation campaign that infiltrated the social network earlier this year. Facebook shut down that effort in August, but not before it managed to also pump political propaganda to a million users over the platform.
With the investigation still under way, Facebook is refraining from releasing all the names of the pages and groups created by newly discovered Iranian propaganda campaign. Nevertheless, it did share some of the details with the Atlantic Council, a US think tank that had a chance to examine the content created by Iranian trolls.
“These accounts masqueraded primarily as American liberals, posting only small amounts of anti-Saudi and anti-Israeli content interspersed within large volumes of divisive political content such as race relations, police brutality, and US President Donald Trump,” the Atlantic Council said in a blog post.
One of fake pages was called “No racism no war,” which was created on April 1. It published about 10 posts per day, and received 412,478 page like. A separate page called “I Need Justice Now” gained over 13 million video views.
A favored tactic of the fake pages was to use internet memes to drive their political messaging, the Atlantic Council added. Memes are generally light on text, which probably helped the Iranian actors blend in and minimize the language errors in spreading their propaganda, the think tank said. The fake pages also used videos and authored comments to drive engagement on Facebook as opposed to pushing users to pro-Iranian websites outside the platform.
“The approach appears to have worked, with posts on both Instagram and Facebook receiving large numbers of shares and replies,” the Atlantic Council said. It also noted that the Iranian trolls appear to be learning from Russian tactics on circulating divisive content to rile up Americans.
Facebook publicized the Iranian propaganda campaign as the company has been trying to fend off attempts by foreign governments to exploit the platform to influence the midterm elections. The company now has 20,000 staffers devoted to safety and security. However, it’s warning that bad actors are getting smarter in hiding their activities.
“Finding and removing abuse is a constant challenge. Our adversaries are smart and well funded, and as we improve their tactics change,” Facebook said.