WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Facebook Shuts Down Hundreds Of Accounts Backed By Iran, Russia


So in the past year or so, we have been talking about disinformation campaigns waged on social media that were associated with Russia. Well, now we are learning that other countries might be taking a page out of that playbook. Facebook shared details of a sprawling campaign out of Iran to spread misinformation all over the world. And NPR's Alina Selyukh has been following the latest here.

Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: Good morning. God, the focus has really been on Russia for so long and the U.S. midterms in American politics. Now we're talking about Iran. What exactly is Facebook announcing here?

SELYUKH: This is new, right? So Facebook says it has shut down a massive disinformation campaign that originated from Iran and targeted users not just in the U.K. or the U.S., where Facebook is particularly widely used, but also in the Middle East and Latin America. Altogether, Facebook says it took down 652 accounts, pages and groups - and that's on Facebook and the sister site Instagram - that were all coordinated, falsely posing as news or civil society organizations, spreading political disinformation, going back almost a decade, running thousands of dollars' worth of ads boasting in English, Arabic and Farsi. And altogether, they had almost a million followers.

GREENE: Wow. So this is huge, global reach going on for, like, 10 years. I mean, how is Facebook just learning about it now?

SELYUKH: So this is definitely the first announcement of this kind of magnitude about a campaign out of Iran from Facebook. To add to that, actually, Twitter also followed with its own suspension of almost 300 accounts - also coordinated manipulation, also allegedly from Iran. But to your question, Facebook says it got tipped off on a key part of this by cybersecurity firm FireEye. And FireEye, in its own report on this, says that this was a network of accounts essentially, pushing policies that are favorable to Iran - you know, narratives that include anti-Saudi themes, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian themes, support for specific U.S. policies favorable to Iran like the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. And FireEye points out that what all this demonstrates is that as much as our discourse here in the U.S. has focused on Russia and how its influence campaigns may have factored into the 2016 election, we're now seeing new actors - nation-states - getting into this world of Internet-driven, social-media-driven influence operations to shape political discourse.

GREENE: But you can't forget about Russia. I mean, even this week - I mean, we had Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, on the program yesterday talking about his company finding new fraudulent websites coming from Russia.

SELYUKH: Right. So actually, in this new announcement from Facebook, the company is still trying to sort out what Russia is doing on the network. In the latest batch, Facebook said it actually did also shut down more accounts linked to the Russian military intelligence services. We don't know how many. Facebook said that the campaigns originating from Iran and Russia did not seem to be linked or coordinated with each other but did use similar tactics with sort of networks of misleading accounts.

GREENE: But this is interesting. This feels like it could be a new phase when you have to focus not just on American politics but on just broader disinformation campaigns. Like, did this Iran stuff have anything to do with the midterm elections here?

SELYUKH: Not directly, no. The tech companies are certainly mindful of the timing with the elections coming up in November. They are eager to show that they're getting aggressive on cybercrime. But to your point, FireEye says that the massive Iranian disinformation campaign did feature some Trump-themed messaging and some liberal-leaning messaging but in general didn't seem designed to influence the 2018 elections in the U.S. And on Russia, similarly, an executive at another cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike, told me that he, too, has not seen any significant activity targeted at the midterms in terms of disinformation. All that said, all this goes to shows that essentially in the matter of a decade, we went from social media being something fun that you do with your friends or...

GREENE: Right.

SELYUKH: ...Follow the news to now having a hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee about social media and disinformation globally. And that hearing is on September 5.

GREENE: Yeah. Amazing to think how - where we have come with social media. NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thanks a lot.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.