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Facebook removes Iranian influence campaign as midterms near

The accounts appeared to sow political discord with posts about race, immigration and Trump.

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Facebook's election war room hosts researchers who the company said Friday identified a coordinated influence campaign originating in Iran.

James Martin/CNET

Facebook took down 82 pages, accounts and groups it said are part of an influence campaign originating in Iran, the company announced in a blog post Friday. The accounts were posing as residents of the US and the UK and posting content about race relations, immigration and opposition to US President Donald Trump.

"This content appeared consistent with what we've seen in other major operations, which is it was targeting broad division," said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy during a conference call on Friday.

Understanding exactly what these bad actors were after is "always a little tricky," Gleicher said, adding that the company isn't in the position to assess their motivation. 

It's the latest in a series of account takedowns Facebook has announced ahead of the US midterm elections on Nov. 6. The company, which recently showed off an "election war room," has been under pressure to do more to safeguard global elections from foreign interference. Facebook's social media competitors, including Twitter and YouTube, have also been fending off disinformation campaigns aimed at dividing voters.

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Facebook said it pulled down this post, which was tied to an Iranian account. 

Facebook

The removed pages, which had names like "Wake Up America," "Thirst for Truth" and "No Racism No War," also latched onto current events. One sample provided by Facebook displayed a cartoon of the controversial hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated to the US Supreme Court. Another removed account posted that Trump is "the worst, most hated president in American History!"

The tech firm said it found some ties between the most recent collection of removed pages and accounts and the Iranian accounts and ads it removed in August. But it appears the bad actors are stepping up their efforts to evade Facebook's detection by posting about issues such as race and police brutality, rather than just anti-Saudi and anti-Israeli content. Also, more recently, they used US and Canadian dollars to purchase two ads on Facebook and Instagram.

"This evolution of tactics from previous, more blatant pro-Iranian messaging suggests the operation had learned from earlier takedowns," according to an analysis by the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which reviewed some of the fake pages and accounts before they were pulled down.

The removed accounts, which were on both Facebook and Instagram, also appeared to focus more on getting users to share and reply to their posts. One account called "I Need Justice Now" had more than 13 million video views, the research lab found.

Facebook first learned about the most recent batch of Iranian-linked accounts about a week ago, but the tech firm hasn't found any ties to the Iranian government. 

"We can't say for sure who is responsible," Gleicher said. 

Facebook said the accounts participated in "coordinated inauthentic behavior," which the company said misleads users and is not allowed on the platform. Gleicher emphasized that Facebook was looking into the behavior of the accounts, not the content, when deciding whether to pull them down. 

But it's not only foreign interference the social media company is going after. This month, Facebook also pulled down hundreds of fake accounts run by Americans ahead of the US midterm elections. 

About 1.02 million accounts followed at least one of the Iranian-linked pages in the most recent takedown, Facebook said. 

Now playing: Watch this: Go inside Facebook's election war room
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First published Oct. 26 at 9:51 a.m. PT.
Update at 10:41 a.m. PT
: Adds remarks from Facebook's conference call and more background.
Update at 11:17 a.m. PT: Adds background from the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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