Facebook Dismantled Iranian Influence Operation

Facebook removed pages and groups related to Pars Today for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Apr 19 · 9 min read
(Source: @Hall__Melissa/DFRLab)

A set of pages and groups associated with Pars Today, an arm of the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), was included in Facebook’s March 26 takedown of more than 2,000 pages, groups, and accounts.

Facebook stated that the assets were “engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram… connected to Iran, Russia, Macedonia, and Kosovo.” Additionally, the company concluded that the assets “used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.” Facebook shared the identities of some of the assets with the DFRLab prior to their removal.

The DFRLab has previously reported on subsets of these assets, highlighting the pages’ amplification of Iranian state messaging in an operation reminiscent of earlier efforts by the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM) and identifying a cohort of assets used as clickbait associated with Ukrainian politics, among other subjects.

Further analysis by the DFRLab identified a subset of pages, groups, and accounts in this takedown that similarly promoted Iran’s positions on international issues but, instead of containing content resembling positions held by IUVM, they blatantly highlighted content from a different state-sponsored media broadcaster, the IRIB.

A large proportion of pages focused on disseminating content from the Pars Today network, a multilingual radio broadcaster that is part of the IRIB umbrella group, to audiences of up to 93,000 followers in countries including Nigeria, Bangladesh, India, and France.

Twenty groups were also run by three accounts closely associated with the IRIB. These groups primarily promoted religion-themed articles from the Pars Today website with Kazakh-language captions.

Investigation by the DFRLab revealed messaging in the pages and groups targeted at large audiences in specific countries. The messaging was emblematic of previous instances of Iran-originating disinformation in that it involved a coordinated inauthentic network overtly sharing links from an Iranian state-media source.

The IRIB, Sanctions, and Pars Today

The IRIB and its subsidiaries have previously displayed oppressive and inauthentic broadcasting methods, which has led, in part, to sanctions from the U.S. government.

On February 6, 2013, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced a round of sanctions on the IRIB on the grounds that the network used “state-media transmissions to trample dissent.” Since then, however, the U.S. Department of State has waived these sanctions on a yearly basis.

In 2016, with the sanctions still waived, links between the IRIB and Pars Today were confirmed by a July 5 report by PressTV, a news network affiliated with the IRIB, that included the president of the IRIB’s announcement of the launch of Pars Today. The report described Pars Today as “offer[ing] the products of 36 IRIB World Service radio channels in 32 languages as well as the news outputs of the World Service television channels” in an effort to influence “a broad media war.”

In October 2018, a Twitter takedown of tweets that contained overt references to PressTV highlighted further concerning activity by the IRIB network. The DFRLab reported on the inauthentic behavior and automation identified in the accounts removed in that takedown.

Finally, in November 2018, the Trump Administration added actual pressure on the IRIB group when it imposed sanctions on one of the IRIB’s core financial conduits, Ayandeh Bank, as well as on the IRIB’s director.

Pars Today’s Targets

Six of the pages titled “Pars Today” were published in various languages, including English, Hausa, Hindi, Bengali, and French. They primarily shared links from parstoday.com with captions and headings in the language associated with the page.

West and Central Africa

Of the removed pages pertaining to Pars Today, “Pars Today Hausa” had the greatest reach, with more than 90,000 followers. The Hausa language is an indigenous language in West and Central Africa, and the page frequently linked to articles from parstoday.com’s Hausa language webpage. The “Pars Today Hausa” Facebook page also shared content from ha.hausatv.com, a Hausa-language website containing news videos and recordings.

Some articles shared on the page were directly relevant to West and Central Africa, such as discussions of political parties and leaders in Nigeria, security agreements between Sudan and South Sudan, and military interventions in the Central African Republic.

“Pars Today Hausa” shared content related to Sudanese politics, Nigeria’s All Progressive Congress, crises in Mozambique, and conflicts in the Central African Republic between armed groups and political leaders. (Source: Pars Today Hausa/archive)

Other articles on the page discussed military and political activities and current events in countries such as Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Venezuela.

“Pars Today Hausa” shared content related to international events including the Kazakhstan presidential elections, the Christchurch shooting, the Venezuelan crisis, and Russian politics. (Source: Pars Today Hausa/archive)

The page had four managers listed, all of whom had a primary country location of Iran.

Another page removed in the Facebook takedown, “Hausa-Radio Tehran,” shared “Pars Today Hausa.” “Hausa-Radio Tehran” had more than 11,000 followers but was relatively inactive. Its most recent posts were all shares of the “Pars Today Hausa” page and spanned nine months between 2015 and 2016.

The “Hausa-Radio Tehran” page supported “Pars Today Hausa” by only posting links that shared the page over multiple months. (Source: Hausa-Radio Tehran/archive)

“Hausa-Radio Tehran” had only two page managers listed, both with primary country locations of Iran.

Bangladesh

There were two additional pages focused on spreading messaging from Pars Today to Bangladesh: “ParsToday Bangla” and “Pars Today Bangla” — the only difference being the spacing between the words “Pars” and “Today.” These pages had 41,000 and 29,000 followers, respectively, and both featured Pars Today logos.

Comparison of the “About” sections of “ParsToday Bangla” and “Pars Today Bangla.” (Source: ParsToday Bangla and Pars Today Bangla)

While “ParsToday Bangla” posted more frequently than did “Pars Today Bangla,” they both posted content consistently, predominantly drawing from parstoday.com’s Bengali-language webpage. Unlike on “Pars Today Hausa,” however, almost all of the content shared by the Bengali Pars Today pages discussed foreign affairs, rather than domestic events.

Topics included interactions between world leaders, as well as technological innovations.

Articles discussing interactions between Turkish and Australian politicians, European wariness of artificial intelligence advancements, Chinese innovations, and Saudi Arabian leadership, respectively. (Source: ParsToday Bangla/archive; Pars Today Bangla/archive)

Similar to “Pars Today Hausa,” the Bangladesh pages had a large proportion of managers listed as based in Iran. “ParsToday Bangla” had eight page managers with a primary country location of Iran, as well as four managers and one manager in Bangladesh and Estonia respectively, and “Pars Today Bangla” had eight managers with a primary country location of Iran, along with one manager each in Bangladesh and Estonia.

India

In the takedown, Facebook also removed “Pars Today Hindi.” This page had more than 34,000 likes and 41,000 followers.

As with other pages related to Pars Today, “Pars Today Hindi” interspersed domestic news stories with internationally focused stories, covering countries such as Tunisia, the United States, Iran, Turkey, and Russia.

Domestic news stories about Indian politics and culture shared by “Pars Today Hindi.” (Source: Pars Today Hindi/archive)

According to its “Info and Ads” section, this page had five managers based in Iran and one manager each in India and Pakistan.

Western Audiences

Two Pars Today pages oriented at Western audiences were also removed in the takedown. “Pars Today” posted links to English-language news articles from parstoday.com and had more than 19,600 followers. All five of its listed page managers had a primary location of Iran.

“Pars Today French” had more than 12,900 followers and posted links to the Pars Today website in French. It had four page managers listed, all with a primary country location of Iran.

Both of the pages were previously named with references to IRIB: the “Pars Today” page was formerly named “IRIB — English Radio,” and “Pars Today French” originally had the name “IRIB — Radio Francophone.” Furthermore, both pages were relatively old, with creation dates of March 1, 2011 and December 28, 2010 respectively. This suggests that the pages were likely repurposed after the creation of Pars Today in 2016 to focus on content from the new radio service.

Many Groups, Same Administrators

At least 20 groups shared the same three page administrators/moderators. These groups had between 60 and 2,000 members and most had names and captions in Kazakh. Posts to these pages included political themes such as the war in Yemen and religious themes such as Ramadan. The three administrator/moderator accounts referenced Pars Today or IRIB and were removed in the takedown by Facebook.

Twenty of the removed groups contained three of the same moderators (Source: Құран аяттары (Знамения Корана)/archive)

Two of the accounts were pages. One had a title, according to Google Translate, that roughly translates to “Iran’s Air Force is Tehran” in Kazakh and a unique account handle of “ParsTodayKaz.” It had over 3,000 likes. The other page was titled “Pars Today Kazakh” and had more than 800 likes. Both of these pages had a graphic of a logo nearly identical to the official logo of Pars Today.

The final group administrator was a user account named Ravil Farid, who claimed to be affiliated with “Radio at IRIB.” This account posted frequently in the groups that it managed and often was the only account to post in the groups over a period of several months. Furthermore, the posts from Ravil Farid almost exclusively shared content from the page named “Iran’s Air Force is Tehran.” This content linked radio-related posts from Pars Today’s online website and primarily contained religiously affiliated content with references to the Quran and leaders in Islam.

Consistency with Iranian Messaging

The pages and groups related to Pars Today conveyed messaging aligned with narratives supported by the Iranian government. For example, several pages and groups shared articles from Pars Today that commended Iran as a regional and world leader. These articles included reporting on Iranian maritime power, its impact in dissuading colonialism in the Middle East, its development of gas fields intended to thwart U.S. sanctions, and its military strength.

Articles posted by pages and groups affiliated with the IRIB characterizing Iran as a regional and global power. (Source: Pars Today Bangla/archive, left; ParsToday Bangla/archive, center left; Pars Today / archive, center right; Исламская республика Иран/archive, right)

The pages also shared stories crafted to demonstrate American and Western European weaknesses or wrong-doings. The page titled “Pars Today French” shared content about Iranian alliances that challenged America and promises of expelling of the United States from Syria. “Pars Today Hindi” shared articles from parstoday.com claiming that British imperialism threatened the sovereignty of Iranian oil wealth and “Pars Today” (which posted in English) shared articles portraying the United States as domineering and threatening.

Articles negatively portraying American and European powers. (Source: Pars Today French/archive, left and center left; Pars Today Hindi/archive, center right; Pars Today/archive, right)

Furthermore, the pages also speculated on Israel’s vulnerabilities or controversial military activity. This content included anti-Israel leaning articles that discussed tensions between Israel and Iran, as well as Israeli military activity.

Articles posted by pages shared an anti-Israel bias. (Source: Pars Today French/archive, left and center left; Pars Today Bangla/archive, center right; Pars Today Hindi/archive, right)

Conclusion

The DFRLab’s open-source investigation of the pages, groups, and accounts removed by Facebook on March 26 highlighted a coordinated effort among pages associated with the Pars Today website to amplify content from the IRIB, a state-run media group.

Facebook pages targeting audiences of up to 90,000 followers in specific regions, including West and Central Africa, Europe, and South Asia, shared both regional and international content with a strong pro-Iran bias in the target languages.

Furthermore, a cohort of Facebook groups run by three accounts further amplified Pars Today content with a predominantly religious theme.

The broadcasting of Iranian-state messaging to geographically diverse audiences, coupled with the potential rerouting of user interest from Western news sources, such as the BBC, to Iranian state-affiliated outlets, demonstrates a coordinated effort to amplify pro-Iranian content on Facebook.


Melissa Hall is a Research Intern at the DFRLab.

Kanishk Karan is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the DFRLab.

Emerson T. Brooking is a Resident Fellow at the DFRLab

Register for the DFRLab’s upcoming 360/OS summit, to be held in London on June 20–21. Join us for two days of interactive sessions and join a growing network of #DigitalSherlocks fighting for facts worldwide!

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

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@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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