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REPORT: Iran-Linked Campaigns Used Social Media To Spread Misinformation And Troll Conservative Voters

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  • Cyberfirm FireEye published a report Tuesday showing that an Iran-based campaign sought to distribute misinformation throughout social media during the midterm elections.
  • Facebook dinged several phony accounts connected to an Iran-backed group seeking to promote pro-Iranian messages in the U.S. 
  • An Iran-backed campaign used Facebook and Twitter accounts to impersonate three Republican congressional candidates.

An Iran-backed campaign used various social media platforms to spread misinformation, promote Iranian interests and impersonate 2018 Republican political candidates, according to a new report published Tuesday night.

The Iran-backed campaign used Twitter and Facebook accounts to impersonate three Republican congressional candidates, cybersecurity company FireEye noted in a report. Two of the impersonated accounts plagiarized content from the candidates’ actual profiles and would later subtly post pro-Iranian messages onto the phony account.

FireEye provided the names of the two of the candidates but decided not to publish the name of the third person who was targeted.

“The examples were provided for the purpose of providing contextual examples,” FireEye spokeswoman Melanie Lombardi told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I’ve spoken with the lead intelligence analyst on this research and we will not to be releasing more details on accounts.”

FireEye’s research forced the two social media platforms into action. Facebook dinged 51 phony accounts, 36 pages followed by 21,000 users, seven groups joined by 1,900 users and three Instagram accounts followed by another 2,600 people after a tip from FireEye. Twitter said it removed 2,800 accounts. The campaign ratcheted up during the midterms.

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One Twitter account @livengood_marla impersonated Marla Livengood, a strawberry farmer who ran unsuccessfully for congress in 2018. The account used a photograph of Livengood and a campaign banner for its profile. It began tweeting in September 2018 with a post plagiarizing comments she made about a Labor Day gathering.

The @livengood_marla account also tweeted commentary about then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before promoting material tied to Iranian interests, the report noted. It posted several narratives related to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Iran considers Saudi Arabia a threat. Livengood lost her bid to incumbent Democratic California Rep. Jerry McNerny.

The Iranian campaign also targeted former New York congressional candidate Jineea Butler, according to the report. The account @ButlerJineea used a photograph of Butler for its profile picture and incorporated her campaign messages into background pictures. It also posted a link to Butler’s website, jineeabutlerforcongress.com. Butler, a black woman, lost her congressional bid in 2018 to New York Democratic Rep. Adriano Espaillat.

FireEye published a separate report in August 2018 suggesting that Iran is involved in a concerted influence effort aimed at people in the U.S., U.K., Latin America and the Middle East. The operation was designed to inject anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian themes into the zeitgeist. It also sought to make U.S. policies more favorable to Iran.

But FireEye’s Wednesday report comes as Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets attempt to rid their websites of disinformation.

American investigators have determined that Russia used similar techniques to interfere in the U.S. election. Various media reports noted in 2018 that Democrat-led disinformation operations were used in the lead up to the midterm elections.

Democratic operatives, for instance, allegedly used social media in 2017 to undermine support for Republican Roy Moore’s senatorial campaign in Alabama and boosted his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, who narrowly won the race. Jones has since publicly called for an investigation into the caper.

Operatives involved in the ploy created thousands of Twitter accounts posing as Russian bots in order to boost Jones. There is evidence the campaign caused a splash. Major media outlets — both in Alabama and nationally — fell for the gambit and amplified the false narrative in October 2017.

Another group, News for Democracy, was also allegedly involved in inserting misinformation into the electoral bloodstream during the election. Many of the group’s pages surreptitiously inserted left-leading messages into the news feeds of conservative voters across the country ahead of the midterm elections.

News for Democracy ran ads touting failed Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas on a Facebook page targeting evangelicals, The Washington Post reported in January. Another page called “Sounds Like Tennessee” ran at least one ad attacking since-elected Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. The latter page focused primarily on sports and other local issues.

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