Facebook said on Thursday it removed 783 accounts tied to Iran that appeared to be engaging in a manipulation campaign that targeted Americans and people in at least 25 other countries.
The online network included Instagram and Facebook accounts, as well as pages and groups. Some of the activity had been on Facebook since 2010, according to a statement from Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook.
The bad actors followed the same playbook. They presented themselves as locals in a country and posted commentary that was re-purposed from Iranian state media on controversial topics, including Israel-Palestine relations and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, Gleicher said in a blog post. But ultimately, it wasn’t the content that drove Facebook to take action.
“In this case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action,” Gleicher said.
Facebook estimated that 2 million accounts followed at least one of the removed pages. More than 254,000 people followed at least one of the Instagram accounts. Less than $30,000 was spent on ads linked the accounts, according to Facebook’s review. The groups also hosted eight events, but Gleicher said there was no way to verify whether they actually took place.
It’s also too soon to say, at least publicly, who may be behind the manipulation network.
While a manual review was able to link the accounts to Iran, Gleicher stopped short of saying who might have ordered the campaigns, which operated in Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, US, and Yemen.
It’s not the first time Facebook has detected this type of activity and traced it back to Iran. Last October, Facebook said it removed 82 pages, groups and accounts that originated in the country and were engaging in coordinated, inauthentic activity
While the social network has made progress in its quest to root out fraudulent activity, the fake pages seem to sprout like weeds as bad actors adjust their tactics in hopes of staying one step ahead of Facebook.
Facebook has still managed to weather the storm on Wall Street, despite a scandal-ridden year. On Wednesday, the social network reported a record profit of $6.88 billion for the final three months of 2018, compared with $4.27 billion from the previous year.