Facebook says it dismantles disinformation network tied to Iran’s state media

In a monthly report of accounts suspended for so-called “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” Facebook said it had removed eight networks in recent weeks. (File/Shutterstock)
Short Url
Updated 06 May 2020

Facebook says it dismantles disinformation network tied to Iran’s state media

  • The company also removed a US network of fake accounts linked to QAnon, a fringe group that claims Democrats are behind international crime rings
  • The networks also pushed content focused on the upcoming US presidential election

LONDON/SAN FRANCISCO: Iran’s state broadcaster has used hundreds of fake social media accounts to covertly spread pro-Iranian messaging online since at least 2011, targeting voters in countries including Britain and the United States, Facebook said on Tuesday.
In a monthly report of accounts suspended for so-called “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” Facebook said it had removed eight networks in recent weeks, including one with links to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB).
The company also removed a US network of fake accounts linked to QAnon, a fringe group that claims Democrats are behind international crime rings, and a separate US-based campaign with ties to white supremacist websites VDARE and the Unz Review.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said both US networks recently began pushing coronavirus-related disinformation, taking advantage of a surge in online interest in the pandemic to promote anti-Semitic and anti-Asian hate speech tied to it.
“We’ve seen people behind these campaigns opportunistically leverage coronavirus-related topics to build an audience and drive people to their pages or off-platform sites,” he said.
The networks also pushed content focused on the upcoming US presidential election, the report said.
Gleicher said the IRIB network had “substantial connections” to previously identified Iranian disinformation campaigns, but it was too early say whether it was directly responsible for those operations.
The state-owned IRIB, which has its head appointed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Iranian officials have previously dismissed allegations of running coordinated disinformation campaigns as “ridiculous.”
The Islamic Republic has emerged as one of the most persistent players in online influence operations, as Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet’s Google have had to grapple with state-backed groups using social media to further their geopolitical agendas and spread disinformation.
A Reuters investigation in 2018 found that one Tehran-based operation had used more than 70 websites masquerading as local news outlets to covertly disseminate Iranian state propaganda in more than 15 countries, at one point tricking the then Pakistani defense minister into issuing a nuclear threat against Israel.
Iranian officials in Tehran and London did not reply to questions about the operation at the time.
Gleicher said the newly identified network had used similar tactics, including posing as independent media websites and charitable organizations, to target countries from Algeria and Bangladesh to the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe.
The network used more than 500 accounts on Facebook and its photo-sharing site, Instagram, to spread messages that often focused on local conflicts or criticism of US actions in the region, he said. “In general, these were narratives that are aligned with Iranian geopolitical interests.”
Researchers at social media analytics firm Graphika, who reviewed the IRIB-linked accounts before they were suspended by Facebook, said some of the earliest-identified activity dated back to 2012 and targeted the US Republican party primaries.
Two years later, other accounts in the network used a handful of fake personas, memes and cartoons to support Scotland’s referendum bid to break away from the United Kingdom, they said.
Graphika’s head of investigations, Ben Nimmo, said those attempts were short-lived but show that Iran was experimenting with online election meddling years before alleged Russian attempts to sway the 2016 US presidential vote. Moscow has repeatedly denied the accusations.
“The Iranian experiment was relatively tiny and didn’t last long or have any noticeable impact. What’s interesting is how early they started,” he said.
“This whole takedown underlines how persistent the Iranian state is when it comes to covert influence operations.”


Snapchat evolving the use of the camera from entertainment to utility

Updated 03 August 2020

Snapchat evolving the use of the camera from entertainment to utility

  • Hussein Freijeh: Our audience in the GCC market specifically understood the core product value of Snapchat and they use Snapchat as a camera
  • Hussein Freijeh: They communicate visually through pictures and videos and they understood the format that Snapchat created for a mobile-only world

DUBAI: At the core of every modern mobile phone is a camera and one self-declared “camera company” has placed its focus on the Snapchat community in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

As far as Snap is concerned, the camera is king. “Our audience in the GCC market specifically understood the core product value of Snapchat and they use Snapchat as a camera,” said Hussein Freijeh, general manager of Snap in MENA.

“They communicate visually through pictures and videos and they understood the format that Snapchat created for a mobile-only world.”

There are currently 34 million monthly unique users on Snapchat in MENA with the platform reaching 60 percent of 13- to 24-year-olds in the UAE and 90 percent of the same age bracket in Saudi Arabia – more than Instagram.

In fact, the company said that Snapchat had a higher open rate than Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, throughout Ramadan 2019 in Saudi Arabia.

“When the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic came, the need for people to communicate increased massively. As a result, we’ve seen a massive increase in our engagement because this is what Snapchat is all about,” added Freijeh.

As more people have spent time on the platform, Snapchat has evolved its offering beyond just entertainment and communication, to utility.

Freijeh noted that Snapchat already had an extremely engaged community and the next step was to work with developers and partners and bring them within the ecosystem to innovate further.

An example of this was the announcement of Minis at the Snap Partner Summit 2020, which are third-party apps that are integrated into Snapchat. Meditation app, Headspace, is one such example allowing users to meditate from within Snapchat.

“One of the things that makes us extremely excited about how we’re evolving as a platform is that idea of adding utility to entertainment on Snapchat. When I pull out my camera and point it toward a mathematic formula, and the camera solves it for me … automatically Snapchat and the camera of Snapchat moves from entertainment to the utility component,” the GM said.

Minis announced at the summit are being launched in the region based on local relevance and demand but Snap is already in active conversations with potential partners to “make sure that we find those cases where the utility would make sense to the local audiences and find the best partners that we can work with on those areas.”

Another topic of conversation at the summit was Originals, shows created specifically for Snapchat by publishers and broadcasters. Currently there are no regionally produced Originals but there are Shows.

Freijeh said that Snapchat expanded its content offering on Discover, which started with a list of news and media organizations such as Sky News and Al Arabiya, to creating Shows for the platform.

During Ramadan, the company announced 40 new Shows with top publishers across the MENA region. Freijeh said that Shows included content that sat on Snapchat but could be published on multiple platforms, whereas Originals were more exclusive to Snapchat and created for a specific purpose and genre.

The platform also works with streaming services such as OSN to promote its services and content on Snapchat. Depending on the partner’s objective, Freijeh said, for instance, that if a service wanted to publish its content on Snapchat and if Snap believed that the content was engaging and the community would appreciate it, it would publish it.

“So far, our value to those services, specifically OSN, has been around driving audiences to them and being able to drive subscription,” he added.

In April 2020, OSN ran a campaign on Snapchat to increase awareness and drive new subscriptions for OSN Streaming through a series of ads.

The campaign targeted a huge diversity of demographics in both English and Arabic within the GCC as well as Jordan and Lebanon and included the launch of a dedicated Snapchat Lens to bring to life the season premiere of “Killing Eve.”

The Lens reached more than 2.2 million unique Snapchatters throughout the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Over the course of the campaign, Snapchat delivered 34 percent of the total purchases and one-fifth of all sign-ups.

Despite the overall dampening of the advertising industry due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Freijeh remained optimistic.

“One of the advantages of the pandemic, unfortunately, is the shift toward e-commerce and online purchases and behaviors. There’s a consensus in the market that one of the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 is going to be that aggressive and accelerated shift toward e-commerce behaviors across all sectors, and as a platform we’re very focused on that,” he said.

The hospitality, travel, and luxury sectors – big spenders on Snapchat – were naturally hit the most. “We’ve seen a lot of activity and ambition coming from major CPG (consumer packaged goods) players, retail, and e-commerce. We’ve built a very diverse business in the last four years at Snap and that has allowed us to be a little bit more resilient through this pandemic.”

By way of example he pointed out Dubai Tourism’s “Till We Meet Again” campaign, which included the launch of four Snapchat Lenses to transport users in the UK and France to Dubai to experience famous destinations including the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Frame, Al-Seef, and Madinat Jumeirah.

During the two weeks that the campaign ran, more than 9.2 million people in the UK and France used the Lenses to virtually visit local landmarks and users exceeded time-spent expectations by more than 180 percent.

According to a post-campaign brand study that ran in May to examine users’ desire to consider Dubai as a travel destination once travel became possible, 30 percent of Snapchatters in the UK and France were positive about visiting Dubai once COVID-19 restrictions were eased.

Snap is confident about its position and role in the face of competition and crises.

“We have a strong business in MENA; our position is really strong here and the way we diversified the business, gave us strength to make sure that we weather the impact of the pandemic for now,” Freijeh said.