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Facebook posts from 2012 show early Iranian attempts to manipulate U.S. politics

The attempts seem to be experiments that were quickly abandoned, and none of those identified received substantial engagement.
Republican Presidential Candidates Participate In Second Florida Debate
Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, participate in a debate on January 26, 2012 in Jacksonville, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Newly released social media posts show that Iran experimented with trying to influence American voters on Facebook in 2012, years earlier than generally understood, a new report from the social media analytics firm Graphika shows.

The 2012 attempts, documented by Graphika and recently taken down by Facebook, seem to be experiments that were quickly abandoned, and none of those identified received substantial engagement. But they do highlight Iran as an early adopter of the tactic of sharing politically charged posts with pseudonymous accounts to a U.S. audience — before even Russia’s Internet Research Agency, widely associated with that tactic, is known to have used it.

The posts are from a since-deactivated arm of a sprawling network of content created by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the national media outlet, the researchers said. The firm found that IRIB ran more than 300 identified active, fake accounts that published a wide range of political content around the world, recently targeting Africans. IRIB's own coverage of the takedowns said that Facebook removed the posts “without showing adequate documentation.”

Image: IRIB as Anonymous supporting Ron Paul
IRIB as Anonymous supporting Ron Paul

Facebook first removed U.S. political content that analysts suspected had ties to the Iranian government in 2018, ahead of the U.S. midterm election. Unlike Russian influence operations, which have sponsored a range of American political ideologies that aligned with Russian interests but primarily support President Donald Trump, that campaign largely criticized Trump, particularly as he traded barbs with Iran’s leadership.

But Iran tried similar tactics for a U.S. audience far earlier, Facebook and Graphika found. Using bland page names like Anonymous and Political Cartoons, IRIB posted political cartoons in support of Ron Paul’s bid for the 2012 Republican nomination. Like other influence operations, they sought to highlight a major political objective — in this case, highlighting criticism of Israel — to people who might not be so receptive to the message if they knew it came from the Iranian government.

They particularly contrasted Paul favorably with Mitt Romney, a vocal supporter of Israel who eventually won the nomination.

Later that year, using an account called "My Hero," the same network posted content on Facebook about the Occupy Wall Street movement, asking for tales about police brutality and sharing links of police beating protesters.

Alireza Miryousefi, an Iranian government spokesman, said in an email: "The Iranian government does not engage in cyber warfare. Iran, itself a victim of U.S. and Israeli cyber attacks, the Stuxnet virus, a cyber attack against Iran's peaceful nuclear activities, is one dangerous example. Cyber activities Iran engages in are purely defensive and to protect against further attacks on Iranian infrastructure. Besides, the U.S., not Iran, has been one of main member-state opponents of a universal ban of using the cyber warfare in the U.N. and beyond.”

Image: IRIB as Political cartoons denigrating Mitt Romney
IRIB as Political cartoons denigrating Mitt Romney

Iran had other early forays into U.S.-themed influence operations. A site to call out police brutality against African Americans called "Unfinished Peace," identified by the cybersecurity firm FireEye, purported to be the work of “university friends” who got their news from IRIB’s Press TV. It was active in the spring of 2016 and had corresponding Facebook and Twitter accounts, though those have all since been deleted.

“Leveraging of domestic U.S. political themes by Iranian actors for influence operations was not a response to or learned from Russia’s perceived success in 2016,” said Lee Foster, FireEye’s chief of information operations analysis. “Iran had been developing its capabilities in this space for a long time prior."