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Facebook says it pulled down fake accounts tied to Iranian militant group

The social network said it linked more than 300 accounts, pages and groups to a troll farm operated by Mojahedin-e Khalq, an exiled Iranian opposition group.

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Facebook said it pulled down more than a dozen networks of accounts from 11 countries in March.

Angela Lang/CNET

Facebook said Tuesday it pulled down more than 300 accounts, pages and groups that appeared to have been created by a troll farm in Albania linked to Mojahedin-e Khalq, an exiled militant group that opposes the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The social media giant removed 128 Facebook accounts, 41 pages, 21 groups and 146 Instagram accounts in March for violating its rules against misleading others about their identity and purpose on behalf of a foreign entity. Facebook said it found "infrastructure connections" between fake accounts and real accounts of MEK-linked individuals and pages from Albania. 

"These are some of the hallmarks of a troll farm, a physical location where a collective of operators jointly manage a pool of fake accounts as part of an influence operation," said Ben Nimmo, global IO threat intelligence lead at Facebook during a press call. 

The latest account takedowns underscore Facebook's ongoing battle with fake accounts on its platform. The company has faced more pressure to combat this problem after Russian trolls used fake Facebook accounts to sow discord among Americans during the 2016 US presidential election.

The network of accounts mainly posted about Iranian events, praising MEK and criticizing the Iranian government. The Iranian opposition group, which was exiled to Albania, also shared links to websites and social media tied to MEK and commented on posts from news organizations. The fake accounts used fake profile photos of Iranian celebrities, deceased dissidents, models and children. Others used landscape shots or AI-generated fake photos, Facebook said.

The operation didn't attract a large following on the social network's platforms, but tried to get people to visit websites associated with MEK. Most of these fake accounts were created between 2014 and 2016 and were most activity in 2017 and the second half of 2020, the social network said. MEK, which is part of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In a statement published online, the NCRI disputed Facebook's findings. "The claim that there is a MEK-affiliated troll farm in Albania is ridiculous and absolutely false," the group said, adding that it's never used fake identities or taken advantage of other people's identities. When asked about NCRI's statement, Facebook reiterated that the company found links between the fake accounts and MEK.

Facebook shared the findings in a monthly report that outlines its most recent account takedowns. It removed 14 networks of accounts from 11 countries in March.