Researchers blame Iran for global fake news campaign targeting Saudi Arabia

Researchers blame Iran for global fake news campaign targeting Saudi Arabia
One of the fake stories that the Iranian operation planted on a website designed to mirror a Swiss news organization. (Supplied)
Updated 16 May 2019

Researchers blame Iran for global fake news campaign targeting Saudi Arabia

Researchers blame Iran for global fake news campaign targeting Saudi Arabia
  • At least 135 fabricated articles were published since 2016
  • Citizen Lab researchers found many of the articles were directed at Saudi Arabia.

LONDON: Iran has been blamed for spearheading a global disinformation campaign that impersonated major media organizations and used fake Twitter accounts to undermine Saudi Arabia.

At least 135 fabricated articles were published since 2016 on websites that were created to mirror global media outlets such as Bloomberg and The Guardian, according to a new report.

Researchers, who tracked the operation for two years, said many of the articles were directed at Saudi Arabia.

In one example, a website mimicking a Swiss publication tricked the Reuters news agency and other outlets into publishing a false report that Saudi Arabia had written a letter to FIFA, football’s governing body, demanding that Qatar be barred from hosting the 2012 World Cup. The report was later withdrawn.

A few months earlier, a fake Belgian newspaper article claiming that then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron's campaign was being one-third funded by Saudi money was widely shared in French ultra-nationalist circles.

Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School, the research group that conducted the analysis, said the researchers had “moderate confidence” the operation was linked to Iran. 

This was based on “the overall framing of the campaign, the narratives used, and indicators from overlapping data in other reports.”

But he said the team have no “smoking gun” that the operation, named Endless Mayfly by the researchers, was run directly by the Iranian state.

The team were given a boost when in August 2018, in coordination with cybersecurity experts FireEye, Facebook, Google, and Twitter announced that they had removed hundreds of accounts for “coordinated manipulation” linked to Iran. 

“Many of these accounts were associated with websites that had been identified as part of Endless Mayfly’s republishing network,” the  Citizen Lab report said.

The report warns that despite reports increasing publicity surrounding the operation, the network is still active.