Exclusive: Iran Steps up Efforts to Sow Discord Inside the U.S.

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Iranian state actors are intensifying their disinformation campaign on social media to spread discord and anti-Semitic tropes inside the U.S., two U.S. intelligence officials say.

Social media accounts tracked to troll farms run by the Iranian government have ramped up disinformation after several major events this year, including Biden’s effort to return the U.S. to the Iran nuclear deal, the April 14 announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin on April 20, and the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas that started on May 10. “It’s a significant level of activity,” one official tells TIME. “It’s active enough that we’re tracking it.” The officials did not offer details on the specific disinformation activity after the events.

But within days of the conflict beginning last month in Israel and Gaza Twitter accounts linked to Iran were amplifying anti-Semitic messages in English, including the phrases “hitler was right” and “kill all jews” at a rate of 175 times per minute, according to analysis by Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies disinformation and is affiliated with Rutgers University and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “You’ve seen tons of misinformation,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the ADL, which monitors hate speech in the U.S. “Many of them have been Tweets associated with troll armies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Iran denies the allegations it has been involved in cyber crimes against the U.S. Shahrokh Nazemi, a spokesman for the Permanent Mission of Iran to the U.N. wrote in an email on June 9 that the accusations by U.S. intelligence agencies about Iran’s online actions are “entirely baseless.”

The new spike in online provocations follows months of intense activity by Iran during the 2020 presidential campaign, when Tehran spread messages aimed at amplifying existing social divisions with the U.S and hurting former President Donald Trump’s chances of winning re-election, according to U.S. intelligence analysts. While Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 and 2020 elections and undermine trust in American democracy have been well documented, less is publicly known about Iran’s increasing online influence operations inside the U.S. “Russia wrote the playbook, but others are using it,” says the U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal analysis.

It comes as President Joe Biden prepares for a European tour to bolster allies and stare down Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. On Biden’s to-do list is to talk to European leaders about Biden’s offer to return to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump exited in 2018, in hopes of getting Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials also want to create an incentive for Iran to tone down its proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. In another provocation, two Iranian military vessels headed around Africa toward the Atlantic Ocean are currently being tracked by the U.S. military.

Last year, Iran was behind efforts to intimidate Democratic voters in the weeks before the election by sending threatening email messages from accounts posing as the violent pro-Trump group the Proud Boys, U.S. intelligence officials have found. The same network of Iranian operatives created and distributed a video with fake allegations of voter fraud.

Both were part of a “multi-pronged covert influence campaign” authorized by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to analysis declassified in March by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Those operations were designed to “undercut Trump’s election prospects” and “undermine public confidence in the electoral process and U.S. institutions, and sow division and exacerbate societal tensions in the U.S,” the report said. Iran used several thousand fake social media accounts to spread misinformation, some of which were created as far back as 2012, ODNI assessed.

After the election, Iran’s efforts broadened in scope. In December, according to the FBI, Iranian operatives created a website called “Enemies of the People” that contained death threats against U.S. election officials and spread online. Intelligence officials expect Tehran to continue to deploy online “covert influence” that includes “spreading disinformation about fake threats or compromised election infrastructure and recirculating anti-U.S. content,” U.S. intelligence officials found in a global threat assessment released in April.

Iran’s surge in online action is part of a decades-long tradition of adversaries trying to amplify domestic discontent inside the U.S. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union deployed what Russian intelligence services called “active measures” to deepen existing divisions in U.S. society, spread disinformation, undermine confidence in the U.S. government, and undercut Washington’s relationship with key allies in Europe. That asymmetrical form of intelligence operations continued for decades and in recent years spread online.

Governments including China and Iran, as well as international terrorist groups and domestic extremist groups how effective Russia’s methods are, the intelligence official says. “Platforms associated with Iran are actively working to leverage current events impacting America and use it to achieve objectives similar to what Russia is trying to do: sow discord, undermine confidence in the U.S. government, both here at home and abroad, and promote their geopolitical objectives.”

Iranian and Russian intelligence services often play off each other and borrow techniques, says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who studies disinformation efforts online and is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

But there are a few hallmarks of Iranian disinformation on social media that make it easy to spot, analysts say. Compared to Russian disinformation efforts, Iranian troll farms are generally “very sloppy” and don’t hide their tracks well, says Watts. The Iranians aren’t as good as Russian intelligence outfits at sounding authentically American in their messages, he says, and they don’t allow accounts to spend years developing audiences before beginning to spread disinformation. These newer accounts with shorter track records and uneven syntax are easier to spot as parts of a network of fake account.

That said, the volume of Iran’s interference in the 2020 elections has the intelligence community’s attention. “Iran was more provocative than Russia this go round,” Watts says. Iran’s online disruption efforts also aren’t limited to the U.S. They are also focused on Arabic-speaking Shia populations in Iraq, French speaking populations in North Africa, and Latin America through Iran’s state-sponsored broadcast network HispanTV.

“Foreign malign influence is an enduring challenge facing our country,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in March, after making public a report that described Russia and Iran’s interference in the 2020 elections. “These efforts by U.S. adversaries seek to exacerbate divisions and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.”

Haines is overseeing the creation of a new office, called the Foreign Malign Influence Center, to track the abuse of social media accounts by foreign governments and terror networks. The Department of Homeland Security is also looking at new ways to combat disinformation campaigns spread by foreign governments and terror groups and has convened an internal working group on the issue that includes the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the department’s office for civil rights and civil liberties, and the general counsel’s office.

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