Facebook and its photo site Instagram pulled down 134 Iranian-linked fake accounts in December that posted about current events including content that promoted Scotland’s independence from the UK.
Facebook, now rebranded as Meta, said Thursday that the accounts violated its rules against using accounts to mislead people or the social network about their purpose and identity. A total of 126 accounts the company pulled down were from Instagram, making up the bulk of the takedown.
Ben Nimmo, Meta’s global threat intelligence lead for influence operations, said in a press conference that what was unique about the operation was the effort taken to make the accounts look like those of real people. Some of the accounts stole profile pictures from celebrities and media personalities from the UK and Iraq. Others appeared to use artificial intelligence to create fake profile pictures.
“In a way, this was more like an old-fashioned pre-internet influence operation, creating detailed fake personas and trying not to be noticed,” he said.
The accounts shared criticism of the UK government but occasionally posted content about Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US. They copied scenery photos and videos from real people and political cartoons from newspapers but also created some of the content themselves. Even though said some of the Iranians had a background in teaching English, the accounts also used hashtags promoting Scottish independence but misspelled them.
Nimmo said the campaign is an example of a shift away from “mass wholesale posting to a more retail approach.” While it’s part of an effort to not get detected, he described the operation as “unsuccessful” because the accounts didn’t gain a mass following. The accounts also tried to contact policymakers and other people in what appeared to be part of a tactic to get their profiles noticed, but Meta didn’t see conversations developing.
Nimmo said the company doesn’t want to speculate about the motive of the operation without enough evidence. In December, Meta also took down 195 fake accounts and pages that originated in Mexico and 191 accounts, pages and groups tied to Turkey.