If the Iranians were any good at social media trolling, it might be something to worry about.
By Eli Lake
As if the free world didn’t have enough to worry about with Russian fake news, now the world leader in state-sponsored terrorism is getting into the act: Iran is running a disinformation campaign on social media, and it is bigger than previously believed.
A closer look though at this propaganda, however, reveals a paper tiger. Iran’s network of Twitter handles, websites and Facebook fakes are amateurish and clumsy. Anyone foolish enough to trust information from something called the “Liberty Front Press,” or to believe that the opposition in the U.K. has its own website called “Britishleft.com,” is already an easy mark for the web’s many frauds and grifters.
Start with the quality of the propaganda. According to a public report from the cybersecurity firm FireEye, the Iranian fake news operation could not keep its story straight. The proprietors of Liberty Front Press changed their Twitter and Instagram accounts to “BernieCrats” this summer to appear more American. Yet they failed to take down a tweet from May that described Senator Bernie Sanders as “an accessory to terror at the Gaza border.” And when these accounts and sites were not just reposting news items found on legitimate sites, the report found, they were posting original material marked by “poorly written English” or just cutting and pasting news items from Iranian propaganda channels such as PressTV.
In addition to being sloppy, the campaign is also redundant. According to FireEye, the Iranian campaign was intended not to influence this year’s midterm elections in the U.S., but rather “to promote Iranian political interests, including anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as to promote support for specific U.S. policies favorable to Iran, such as the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.” It goes on to say that the U.S. fake news sites included “significant anti-Trump messaging.”
That’s it? Surely someone inside the Iranian regime must know that there are already many established U.S. advocacy groups that oppose President Donald Trump, support the Iran nuclear deal and are highly critical of Saudi Arabia and Israel. If you want criticism of Saudi Arabia, for example, try the office of Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. On the nuclear deal, there is the Ploughshares Fund, which provided grants to a network of groups that promoted the nuclear deal when it mattered in 2015 and tried to save it in 2017 and 2018. Looking for anti-Trump messaging? I recommend to you the Democratic Party. All of these voices are far more effective in moving U.S. public opinion than a handful of semi-literate social media accounts and third-rate news aggregators.
But let’s give the Iranians some benefit of the doubt. It takes years for a good propaganda operation to build trust with an audience. Perhaps the plan was to build trust and an audience over time — and then, at the right moment, inject a meaningful lie into a stream of trusted news. At least that’s the way these things are supposed to work.
Again, though, the Iranian operation was so amateurish that it was pretty easy to determine that their network of sites was not on the level. Most of the Twitter accounts affiliated with Liberty Press, for example, were attached to phone numbers with Iran’s country code.
None of this is to say that the work to expose the operation was not worth it. The campaign may not be “a clear and present danger to U.S. democracy,” says Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. But it is nevertheless “a covert regime messaging operation that merits attention.”
That is the right perspective. Compare Iran’s disinformation campaign to that of Russia, which has a network of fake news sites and social media accounts aimed at tearing America apart. During the 2016 campaign, for example, Russian trolls actually staged two competing rallies — one pro-Muslim, the other anti-Muslim — at the same time and location in Houston. (Luckily, the ploy does not appear to have sparked any physical confrontations.)
By contrast, Iran’s propaganda network seems like it would only work on the most anti-American Americans. Its sites posted videos of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani responding to threats from Trump and promoted hashtags like “#DeleteIsrael” and “#FreePalestine.” Maybe the mullahs were microtargeting Berkeley.
Whatever the motivation, the work is shoddy. It may be vile, but Iranian fake news is not a real threat.