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Fake Iranian tweets targeted Americans with the weird and the wild

Twitter’s release this week of one million tweets that were part of a social media influence campaign in Iran, as well as millions more from Russia’s own disinformation effort, offered a new level of detail regarding how Americans interacted with the accounts, and who was susceptible to targeting.

Earlier this year, the “Mad Dog PAC” — a group founded by Claude Taylor, dedicated to “censuring Trump” — promoted a sign from a Twitter user named @AllynBeake. The sign was “great,” wrote the Mad Dog PAC Twitter account.

But @AllynBeake, whose Twitter profile claimed he was a Houston-based “social activist” and an “analyst,” doesn’t actually exist. Rather, the @AllynBeake Twitter account was part of the Iranian social media campaign, one directed, at least in the U.S., at feeding disinformation to progressives.

The release of the millions of tweets linked to a trolling campaign out of Iran provides a clearer picture of how those behind the campaign targeted Americans as well as Arabic-speakers across the world. It remains unclear who out of Iran, or which branch of the Iranian government, was responsible for the campaign.

Based on the Twitter release, it appears the Iranian campaign wasn’t as widespread as the Russian social media campaign, which spread fraudulent posts on Facebook and Twitter, among other platforms, to influence American politics. While the Russian efforts targeted numerous contingencies across the American political spectrum — gun enthusiasts, far-left supporters, anti-racism advocates, Christian fundamentalists — the Iranian campaign thus far unearthed appeared to target only left-leaning Americans.

And the now-suspended @AllynBeake seems to be the most successful fake account exposed thus far.

While not as prominent as some of the Russian accounts — like the @Ten_GOP account, which was the seventh-most popular Twitter account in the U.S. on Election Day 2016 — the account nonetheless ended up in numerous media stories. From MTV to HuffPost, @AllynBeake tweets criticizing First Lady Melania Trump and Fox News host Sean Hannity were picked up and broadcast by national outlets. That is to say, long after the news about fake Russian social media operations broke, it appears journalists were still willing to cite unverified Twitter accounts — so long as it fit with their stories’ angles.

Not all of the prominent fake Iranian accounts discovered thus far came with an obvious political bent or agenda, however. One of the strangest — and one of the most popular, with almost 19,000 followers on Twitter — was an account named ToonsOnline, with the @toons_online handle.

While the ToonsOnline Twitter account is suspended, its Facebook page is still active, with over 10,000 followers. The page’s content ranges from the humorous — caricatures of Trump, cartoons about Hillary Clinton — to the bizarre, such as a video instructing users how to create illusions about having holes in their hands.

The website for ToonsOnline is dead, but an Internet Archive search reveals some of the broken English indicative of the larger disinformation campaign. “Join us for a deeper smile,” the page’s “About” section read. “Toonsonline.net is the first News-Toons website to be at your desk day to day. We are an international critical caricature movement with an alternative approach. Every day, top cartoonists from all around the world gather around the beloved figure of ‘Giggly’،drawing and animating cartoons to put deep realities of global news into and between the lines.”

International efforts

As others, such as the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, have pointed out, Americans weren’t the only targets of the Iranian social media campaign — or even the primary audience. The most popular fake Twitter accounts in this Iranian campaign were directed at Saudis, or at least critics of the Saudi regime, with some tweeting in Arabic.

Topping the list with over 40,000 followers, the @saudiatimes account appears to mimic a news outlet critical of the Saudi regime. The account’s Instagram and Facebook pages remain live, illustrating both the site’s style and its memorable taste in artwork.

The Iranian campaign’s other most prominent feeds appear to have churned out similar material, including the @hawakatweet account, which had over 20,000 followers and claimed to be based out of Riyadh.

As the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab found:

The Iranian operation was built around over 100 websites which took pro-regime messaging, stripped it of its attribution, and laundered it through a complex ecosystem of websites and social media accounts. Many of the accounts masqueraded as Western or Middle Eastern news outlets or journalists.

And as ThinkProgress first reported, one of those fake news sites affiliated with the campaign managed to spark a nuclear warning from Pakistan against Israel.

As it is, the Iranian campaign doesn’t appear to have been as successful as several fake Russian accounts — the latter of which not only organized armed white supremacists in the U.S., but gained enough traction to be shared by Trump himself. Still, the newly released tweets highlight how susceptible Americans remain to fake foreign social media campaigns, no matter the political bent.

After all, it’s not like Taylor hasn’t been duped before. The activist, who is closely linked with conspiracy theorist Louise Mensch, was publicly tricked in another hoax last year. But he has linked his “Mad Dog PAC” to efforts to implicate Trump in potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Even that, though, wasn’t enough to prevent “Mad Dog PAC” from falling for another foreign interference effort — this time, out of Iran.


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