SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook has removed 783 pages, groups and accounts tied to an Iranian disinformation operation that targeted dozens of countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The "inauthentic behaviour" included 262 pages, 356 accounts and 3 groups on Facebook, and 162 accounts on Instagram, Facebook announced (January 31).
The pages were part of a campaign to promote Iranian interests in various countries by creating fake Facebook or Instagram identities, said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook.
Those operating the accounts and pages "typically represented themselves as locals, often using fake accounts, and posted news stories on current events", he said, adding that the owners also attempted to conceal their identities.
"We can prove that this is content emanating from Iran; controlled by actors in Iran, and most of the content is reposted from Iran state media," Gleicher told reporters.
"We are not in position to directly assert who the actor is in this case," he said.
One of the pages had about two million followers, one of the groups had about 1,600 members and one of the Instagram accounts had more than 254,000 followers, Facebook said in a statement.
"This activity was directed from Iran, in some cases repurposing Iranian state media content, and engaged in co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour targeting people across the world, although more heavily in the Middle East and South Asia," Gleicher said in the statement.
The countries affected included Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United States and Yemen.
Some of the activity dates back to 2010, Facebook said.
A pattern of malice
Facebook's investigation into the abusive content presents yet more evidence of Iran's support for Taliban militants and other attempts at interference in Afghanistan.
One example presented by Facebook showed fake news claiming that the Taliban rescued survivors of a "snow collapse" in Afghanistan.
The post describes the Taliban in a heroic light, saving people's lives, while in reality the Taliban has killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan in their bloody war with the Afghan government.
The Taliban has continued the war with material support and weapons from Iran, a reality Tehran finally acknowledged late last year.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, confirmed that Iranian officials met with the Afghan Taliban in December.
"The Afghan government has been informed of the communications and talks carried out with the Taliban, and this process will continue," he said December 26, according to Iran's Tasnim news agency.
No details on where the talks took place were given by Tasnim, an outlet considered close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Iran, which shares an almost 600-mile-long border with Afghanistan, has been stepping up its interference amid the renewed diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the 17-year-long conflict.
On December 9, Afghan security forces discovered an arms cache in an operation outside Ghazni that included Iranian-made weapons.
"Iran is 100% involved in the recent events that created insecurity in Ghazni," Ghazni provincial police chief Ghulam Daud Tarakhil told Salaam Times at the time. "All these activities are clear indications of Iran's blatant interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs."
The weapons "show that Iran is working to expand the scope of the war in Afghanistan", said Aminullah Shariq, former governor of Paktika Province.
The Facebook revelation is not the first time Iran has been shown Iran has been shown to distribute propaganda that aims to influence global public opinion.
In a special report late last year, Reuters identified more than 70 websites that push Iranian propaganda to 15 countries, including three disinformation websites in Pakistan and four in Afghanistan.
"The sites underline how political actors worldwide are increasingly circulating distorted or false information online to influence public opinion," the November 30 report said.
The sites offered a mixture of news and were designed to resemble regular news and media outlets.
Iran has been exploiting modern communications technology to pursue "a policy of media inundation to spread its ideas in indirect ways by distorting and manipulating facts", said Mazen Zaki, director of the new media department at Egypt's Ibn al-Waleed Centre for Studies and Field Research.
In addition to spreading rumours, he said, these media outlets have been disseminating disinformation about the IRGC, sharing news of false victories to glorify the group.
Dealing with Iran's 'cyber terrorism'
Iran's propaganda attempts in Pakistan -- considered by officials to be "cyber terrorism" -- have prompted alarm as well as efforts to thwart a suspected Iranian strategy of fomenting insecurity and sectarianism.
In one case, a website called Another Western Dawn that was identified by Reuters duped a Pakistani official into issuing a nuclear threat against Israel.
In 2016, the website ran a false story that prompted then Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif to warn via Twitter that Pakistan had the nuclear arsenal to destroy Israel. He discovered the hoax was part of an Iranian operation only when Reuters contacted him.
"It was a learning experience," said Asif, who left the government in 2018. "But one can understand that these sorts of things happen, because fake news has become something huge. It's something that anyone is capable of now, which is very dangerous."
"We have adopted a very comprehensive and provident strategy for handling cyber terrorism in the country," a senior Islamabad-based intelligence official posted in the cyber security division at the Ministry of Defence told Pakistan Forward December 18 on the condition of anonymity.
"The teams working in our cyber security division are linked with the main Smart Verification and Alert System, and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority is also providing technical assistance to these teams."
"Over the past two years, we have blocked hundreds of anti-Pakistan websites and have taken action against thousands of social media accounts," he said. "All efforts are made to counter Iranian propaganda, and our social media surveillance teams are closely monitoring all relevant platforms."