Facebook's announcement that it had taken down accounts linked to Iran that were pushing out a message supportive of the anti-Netanyahu protests in Israel rippled through Israeli media.
Journalist Amit Segal reported on Friday: “Facebook reports: We have removed a dozen Iranian accounts that impersonated Israelis and promoted the demonstrations against Netanyahu.” Netanyahu's Likud party's official Twitter account also shared the report, and in a chain of tweets went as far as to accuse the protestors of receiving support and aid from Iran – an accusation that was also reported on Channel 12 News and in a detailed article in the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper, along with screenshots from the Facebook report “proving” the Iranian support.
As could be expected, this media interest stirred up a storm of mutual accusations on social media.
But if you read Facebook’s original October 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report, you’ll be asking yourself what the big deal is. This is a standard monthly report Facebook has been putting out since March this year, at its own initiative. It includes a long list of organized efforts “to manipulate public debate across [Facebook’s] apps.” Usually these attempts are political and the reports focus mainly on Facebook’s activities, with very limited information listed for each case.
After a great deal of criticism against it, Facebook began acting against organized attempts to exploit its apps: fake accounts and pages along with fake followers meant for purposes of political influence.
Here is what Facebook wrote: “We removed 12 Facebook accounts, two Pages and 307 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against foreign interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity. This activity originated in Iran and targeted primarily Israel, and also Iraq.
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“This network was early in its audience building when we removed it. The network used fake accounts – most of which were created around the same time – to develop fictitious personas who purported to be based in Israel and Iraq. These accounts have gone through significant name changes over time. They posted memes, images and other content in Hebrew and Arabic focusing on news and current events in the countries they targeted including anti-Prime Minister Netanyahu protests in Israel, criticism of his policies and response to the pandemic.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with EITRC, a Tehran-based IT company.”
Facebook also gave three examples of screenshots of posts: One in Arabic about internal Iraqi affairs and two in Hebrew about the Black Flag movement’s anti-Netanyahu protests.
The simple explanations supplied by the Facebook report, which is freely available to the public (and in English), are far from the claims that “Iran used social media to fuel the left-wing demonstrations against Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
Social media is filled with fake activity. Anyone who’s ever received a friend request from a supermodel whose profile is written in broken Hebrew knows this already. Much of this fake activity is business-related, not political, and often the products are counterfeit. Some is a scam and some is just spam – and some of it is criminal.
So what type of activity are we talking about in this case, and how is it run technically? Facebook won’t say. In the case of the foreign networks mentioned here, networks of bots shared the posts even further. In addition, the source of the fake accounts is interesting: not the Iranian government but an Iranian IT company. But Iran is a big place and Facebook can’t always tell or find out who is behind what. Without the original data, we’ll never know.
And we don’t know any more. All we have is the screenshots about the Black Flag movement, without any additional information about who followed, liked and shared the posts. It’s impossible to tell if this represents any such support for any movement at all. It seems Facebook is sparing with this information in part because it doesn’t want to spark a political bomb – an attempt which failed in this case.
Ran Bar-Zik is a developer at Verizon Media and writes for internet-israel.com. The opinions expressed are not those of Verizon Media.