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Facebook shuts down 652 Iran-backed accounts after finding disinformation campaigns

Posted at 10:00 PM, Aug 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-21 22:00:00-04

Facebook has taken down 652 pages, accounts and groups it identified as part of a coordinated disinformation campaign that originated in Iran and targeted countries around the world. It also found a number of new pages connected to Russia.

The pages and groups spread misinformation in the United States, United Kingdom, Latin America and the Middle East. Some of them posed as a group called “Liberty Front Press.”

Facebook said the coordinated campaigns that originated in Iran included 254 Facebook pages and 116 Instagram accounts that amassed more than 1 million followers across the two services. Those behind the pages spent more than $12,000 on advertisements between 2012 and 2017, the company said.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company’s attempts to identify fake pages, groups and accounts are making Facebook safer.

“While it’s still early, we’re starting to see it pay off and we’re identifying more of this before the election,” he said on a call with reporters.

In a related development, Twitter announced on Tuesday that it has identified and removed hundreds accounts it linked to Iran. The company said it is working with law enforcement and other companies.

The announcements underscore just how aggressively foreign actors continue to interfere in elections around the world. Facebook’s revelation came after Microsoft took control of websites it said Russian military intelligence could have tried to use to hack American politicians.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies have been scrambling to protect their platforms ahead of the midterm elections in November and prevent a repeat of the widespread disinformation seen during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Facebook made the announcement Tuesday evening. Some of the pages were identified by Facebook after a tip from cybersecurity firm FireEye.

Some of the content Facebook removed could be traced to groups previously connected to GRU, Russia’s primary military intelligence agency, the same group that was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last month for hacking the US Democratic Party. The Russia campaigns were not related to any pages originating in Iran, and did not target the United States.

Facebook is working with US law enforcement in an ongoing investigation. It said it has been following suspect pages for months.

Using clues like website registrations and IP addresses, Facebook connected Liberty Front Press pages to Iranian state media. The first Liberty Front Press accounts Facebook found were created in 2013.

Another set of suspicious accounts and pages that originated in Iran could be traced to 2011.

The announcement comes as Facebook’s attempts to prevent a repeat of 2016, when the platform was peppered with accounts connected to a Kremlin-linked troll group posing as Americans. It removed more than 30 pages last month that it said were part of a coordinated campaign to post “misleading” information. Facebook told lawmakers it suspected a Russian group was behind the accounts.

Tuesday’s revelations show the problem goes beyond Russia.

“I’ve been saying for months that there’s no way the problem of social media manipulation is limited to a single troll farm in St. Petersburg, and that fact is now beyond a doubt,” said Senator Mark Warner, top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “We also learned today that the Iranians are now following the Kremlin’s playbook from 2016.”