Iranian disinformation effort was small to stay under the radar of big tech

“Iran-based threat actors are some of the most persistent and well-resourced groups trying to operate online, including on our platform,” the Facebook spokeswoman said.

FakeReporter researchers found that many of the images and memes the Iranians used came from Iranian sites, or could be linked to Facebook and Twitter accounts with previous links to Iran. While researchers believe that many countries have been doing this, recent research was the first to detail how a government could break into small community groups online and show how disinformation campaigns operate on encrypted applications.

US intelligence agencies are concerned that the same thing may be happening in the United States. Last week, the Justice Department said it was blocking access to three dozen websites linked to Iran’s disinformation efforts. A US intelligence official told The Times that authorities were closely monitoring messaging groups on Telegram, WhatsApp and other apps for Iranian disinformation.

The apps are an ideal means for Iran to enter a closed group of people with similar views and spread divisive and extremist messages, said the intelligence official, who was not authorized to give interviews and spoke on condition of anonymity. They shared memes, for example, that compared Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler, an offensive comparison that could prompt some people to adopt more extreme views and make others think that their online groups have become too extreme.

“In these closed messaging groups, people tend to trust each other and share more freely because there is a feeling that they share the same policy and that the application itself is secure,” said Gonen Ben Itzhak, an Israeli lawyer who once worked for Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. He was among dozens of Israelis who said Iranian efforts had targeted them.

People who unknowingly communicated with the Iranians said the pandemic and turmoil in Israeli politics had made them especially vulnerable to misinformation.

To avoid large crowds during the pandemic, many Israelis participated in local protests for their town, city, or even their block. To plan for them, the Israelis formed neighborhood groups on WhatsApp, Telegram and other social media platforms. Anyone can join the groups. New members often connect by clicking on a link shared by a friend or posted on a public website. While some of the groups had a few dozen members, others had more than 10,000.

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