WASHINGTON – Facebook announced Wednesday that it recently removed separate networks of fake Iran and Russia accounts that were attempting to promote pro-regime messages at home and stoke divisions within specific countries like Israel, underscoring the persistence of foreign influence campaigns in US-based social media platforms.
One of the Iranian networks used fake accounts to target audiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and the United Kingdom, posting memes, political cartoons and other content in Arabic, English, Pashto and Hebrew about national news and politics, Facebook said.
That network promoted Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom, criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the influence of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The Taliban and the United States are united against Afghanistan,” read the caption of a cartoon showing the Taliban and American flags astride a map of the country. “Scotland deserves better,” read another.
The Russian network included 530 fake Instagram accounts originating primarily in Russia and targeting national audiences in connection with recent protests in support of Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Up to 50,000 people followed one or more of the accounts.
The Russian network used techniques known as “hashtag poisoning” and “location poisoning,” posting large volumes of irrelevant or critical content in particular hashtags and location tags to drown out relevant information and redirect the conversation, Facebook said.
Some of the location tags included places where protesters planned to gather in Moscow and St. Petersburg on January 23 and 31, and then near the Moscow City Court, Facebook said.
For profile photos, Facebook said, the Russian accounts used celebrity or computer-generated photos, and the accounts appeared to have been created in bulk and purchased from a third-party broker.
The accounts appeared designed to deter protesters. One published in January about the risk of contracting the Covid-19 virus.
“I went to the protest on January 23, now the grandfather is connected to the fan,” he said.
The fake accounts were quickly detected by Facebook’s automated systems and shut down, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told NBC News.
“They were not very effective,” he said, but advertising them provides useful information on how foreign propaganda networks work and what messages they employ.
Facebook did not formally attribute the activity to the governments of Iran and Russia.