WATCH: Ted Cruz explains the bias of social media
If you thought there suddenly seemed an unusual amount of anti-Trump anti-Saudi pro-Iran propaganda right before the midterms on social media, you weren’t wrong.
A network of fake social media accounts impersonated political candidates and journalists to spread messages in support of Iran and against U.S. President Donald Trump around the 2018 congressional elections, cybersecurity firm FireEye said on Tuesday.
The findings show how unidentified, possibly government-backed, groups could manipulate social media platforms to promote stories and other content that can influence the opinions of American voters, the researchers said.
This particular operation was largely focussed on promoting “anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes,” according to the report by FireEye.
And these accounts on Twitter and Facebook, many masquerading as American journalists, convinced news outlets to run letters to the editor, guest columns and blog posts pushing pro-Iranian propaganda.
Republican politicians who were targeted in the campaign lost their elections.
Before the 2018 midterms election, the nameless group created Twitter accounts that also impersonated both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates. It is unclear if the fake accounts had any effect on their campaigns.
The imposter Twitter accounts often plagiarized messages from the politicians’ legitimate accounts, but also mixed in posts voicing support for policies believed to be favourable to Tehran. Affected politicians included Jineea Butler, a Republican candidate for New York’s 13th District, and Marla Livengood, a Republican candidate for California’s 9th District. Both Livengood and Butler lost in the election.
Livengood’s campaign called the situation “clearly an attempt by bad actors” to hurt her campaign, and noted that Livengood was “a strident opponent of nuclear weapons in Iran.”
Twitter says they have removed the “2800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran” just this month and they are investigating.
Facebook said it had removed 51 Facebook accounts, 36 Pages, seven Groups and three Instagram accounts connected to the influence operation. Instagram is owned by Facebook.
The activity on Facebook was less expansive than that on Twitter and it appeared to be more narrowly focused, said Facebook head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher. The inauthentic Facebook accounts instead often privately messaged high profile figures, including journalists, policy-makers and Iranian dissidents, to promote certain issues.
Facebook also concluded that the accounts were originating out of Iran.