Study reveals Iran tried to sway public opinion in its favor via social media

A study done by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research (DFR) Lab has revealed that Iran has been attempting to manipulate public opinion via Twitter accounts masquerading as foreign journalists and American citizens with apparent knowledge on the matter.

The U.S.-based think tank concluded that Iran's campaign - amidst heavy sanctions placed on it by the U.S. - to “spread regime messaging through covert channels”, while extensive, has been broadly ineffective, and has been carried out on a far smaller scale than the one Russia carried out during the 2016 U.S. elections. Graham Brookie, director and managing editor of the DFR Lab, says:

"The scale and scope of the Russian troll farm drastically outweighed the scale and scope of the Iranian troll farm."

Twitter, in August, revealed in a blog post that it had suspended 770 accounts with apparent ties to the Iranian government for engaging in "coordinated manipulation" on its platform, with some of the campaigns dating back all the way to 2009. In the same post, it also made good on its prior commitments to the U.S. Congress, wherein the company made the data involved here - namely the tweets and their sources - openly available as an archive, in order to streamline any potential investigation into the matter.

The blog post, put together by Yoel Roth, the site integrity chief, and Vijaya Gadde, head of the legal, public policy, and trust and safety, goes on to say:

"It is clear that information operations and coordinated inauthentic behavior will not cease. These types of tactics have been around for far longer than Twitter has existed — they will adapt and change as the geopolitical terrain evolves worldwide and as new technologies emerge. For our part, we are committed to understanding how bad-faith actors use our services. We will continue to proactively combat nefarious attempts to undermine the integrity of Twitter."

The Atlantic Council praised Twitter's move to boost transparency in these matters, with Brookie defending a consumer's "right to have more information about the things they see that are presented to them.”

Of the 10 million or so tweets that surfaced from this, Twitter shared 2 million of them with the Atlantic Council for further investigation, as the former couldn't fully gather the evidence necessary to pinpoint Iran as their source. Further research was able to achieve this; the study revealed that the Iranian government made use of several fake identities, as well as bots, to push its agenda abroad. This included vocal support for the Syrian government, along with attacks on the Saudi Arabian and Israeli ones.

These now-defunct accounts came in several guises, some of which were a reporter from Moscow, a game designer from California, and a direct representative from a state-run media outlet from Iran.

Very little of this actually panned out in Iran's favor, however, with extremely suboptimal engagement and barely any reach at all, with no one of influence falling for the propaganda. “They were ill-adapted to the platforms they sought to use.", concluded the Atlantic Council.

Source: Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab (1), (2), (3), (4) via The Washington Post

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