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Facebook Cracks Down on Iranian, Russian Influence Campaigns

By John P. Mello Jr.
Aug 23, 2018 10:13 AM PT
facebook has deleted hundreds of pages involved in iran- and russia-backed influence campaign

Facebook on Tuesday announced it has removed more than 650 Facebook and Instagram pages, groups and accounts originating in Iran and Russia for "coordinated inauthentic behavior."

The goal is to improve the trustworthiness of Facebook connections.

Although it has been making progress in its efforts, the people responsible for the inauthentic activity are determined and well funded, Facebook said.

"We identified an influence operation, not just on Facebook, but across several social media platforms," said Sandra Joyce, vice president for global intelligence at FireEye, a cybersecurity company in Milpitas, California.

"We have moderate confidence it's Iranian-based," she told TechNewsWorld.

Classic Influence Campaign

Iran's efforts represented a classic campaign to influence audiences in the United States, United Kingdom, Latin America and the Middle East, Joyce said.

The campaign promoted content laced with pro-Iranian, anti-Israel, anti-Saudi Arabia, anti-sanctions and pro-nuclear-deal sentiments, she pointed out.

It praised candidates running for office in the United States who supported the Iran nuclear treaty scrapped by the Trump administration.

Iran seems "to be taking a page out of Russia's playbook when it comes to influencing the populace," Joyce said.

"What's unique is that we're watching what we believe to be Iranian-based actors pushing this agenda across the world and leveraging social media to do so," she remarked.

The campaign's focus on Latin America is a bit of a new wrinkle, observed Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate for Comparitech.com, a reviews, advice and information website for consumer security products.

"It seems less like a change in tactics and more like adapting proven methods to other countries," he told TechNewsWorld.

"With all the trouble brewing in Nicaragua right now, I wouldn't be surprised if that was a target," Bischoff said. "The U.S. has been pushing democracy in Nicaragua for decades, and that effort is now under threat."

Muddy Conversation

Influence campaigns are similar to astroturfing in that the sponsor of a campaign is hidden to make it look like a grassroots movement, Bischoff noted.

"With the help of analytics built into Facebook and most websites, these campaigns not only spread their message, they also gather information about the people who receive it," he said. "They can use this information to target the same people and people like them in the future with more effective messaging."

These campaigns don't want to change public opinion as much as shift it in a way that will benefit the campaign's authors, suggested Vincent Raynauld, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Emerson College in Boston.

That shift can include sowing doubt through misinformation.

"If you can inject a lot of fake news into an online conversation, you can muddy the waters," Raynauld told TechNewsWorld. "You might get people to question their beliefs. You might get them to change their behavior."

Iran-Russia Connection

The fact that the inauthentic pages, groups and accounts purged from Facebook originated in Iran and Russia is probably not a coincidence.

"The Iranians have really close ties to the Russians," said James A. Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organization in Washington, D.C.

"That's why they've improved so much on the cyber side," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Iran has also been worried about controlling social media since the Green Revolution about a decade ago," Lewis said. "Iran is only the second country to use social media influence operations in any meaningful way. The Chinese do it, but they do it against their own people and Taiwan, not in other countries."

Uphill Battle

It's difficult to determine the effectiveness of Facebook's efforts to weed out inauthentic behavior, Bischoff observed.

"We have little context regarding how big this problem really is, likely because Facebook doesn't know how big the problem is," he said.

"Anybody can make a Facebook page or group with practically zero oversight, and the company probably relies on users flagging content to generate leads. When you consider that -- and the fact that Facebook must also try to balance enforcement and censorship -- it's really fighting an uphill battle," Bischoff explained.

"I don't have too much sympathy, though," he added. "Facebook built the hill."

More Anticipation Needed

Because it is so easy to create pages, groups and accounts on Facebook, policing inauthentic content can be challenging.

"It's pretty much a political whack-a-mole play. When a page pops up, you hit it and another one pops up," Raynauld said.

"Facebook is fighting fires," noted Mark Graff, CEO of Tellagraff, an incidence response planning company in New York City.

"It puts one out and waits until another fire breaks out somewhere else," he told TechNewsWorld. "It's good to do that. It's necessary to do it -- but it's better to anticipate where a fire is going to break out and take away its fuel."

Facebook maintained that what's needed to root out inauthentic behavior on its network is building better technology, hiring more people, and working more closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies.

There's a fourth need, according to Raynauld.

"The public needs to be involved. It has to be able to identify fake news and ignore it," he said. "I've seen little to no attempt to educate the public on what fake news is."

Technology Will Solve Problem

While taking down inauthentic pages, groups and accounts is a good start, Facebook could go further to combat them, Graff maintained.

For example, it could make an effort to verify who is creating those pages, groups and accounts.

"It's never been much of a concern for them because it doesn't affect their income," Graff pointed out.

Facebook also could look more closely at who's buying ads on its network.

"U.S. sanctions Facebook from buying ads from Iran so it's using cutouts to buy ads," Graff explained. "Facebook should validate who's purchasing ads to see if they're trying to evade sanctions."

Technology eventually will solve the problem of inauthentic pages, groups and accounts on Facebook, CSIS' Lewis predicted.

"If you can come up with programs to identify pornography and extremism, you can come up with programs to identify fake news," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me if we were better off a year from now because people built the tools to find this kind of stuff."


John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.


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