Twitter’s data shows hundreds of accounts set up to spread regime propaganda to destabilise the region
A data dump of state-sponsored Twitter troll operations has revealed Iran’s “clumsy” efforts to mimic Russia’s social media disinformation campaign, including hundreds of accounts and one million tweets.
Twitter released its complete data set of Iran’s and Russia’s activity, which together amount to more than 10 million tweets and two million images.
The company announced the data dump yesterday, encouraging experts to analyse the information so it could better understand how its platform was misused. Analysis of the Iranian troll activity shows a focus on discrediting Saudi Arabia.
“It is clear that information operations and co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour will not cease,” two staff members wrote on Twitter’s blog.
“These types of tactics have been around for far longer than Twitter has existed. They will adapt and change as the geopolitical terrain evolves worldwide and as technologies emerge.”
Data on trolls connected to the Russian Internet Research Agency, which is the subject of US intelligence investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, have also been released.
The Iranian operation consisted of 770 users and a million tweets, while Russia’s 3,841 accounts posted nine million.
“The Iranian operation was big but it was frankly clumsy,” Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council, who had an early look at the data, told The National.
“They weren’t very good at what they did. The big difference between the Iranian operation and the Russian one was that while the Russian operation was using Twitter and other social media to engage people, the Iranian operation was using social media to message people.”
About a third of the Iranian tweets released contained links to awdnews.com, part of a cluster of sites exposed by FireEye in August to be part of Iranian propaganda, Mr Nimmo said.
But the Iranian operation was pushing pro-regime narratives without engaging people.
“If you compare that with some of the best performing Russia troll accounts, they had real personalities,” Mr Nimmo said. “They were engaging with people, they were funny, they were sarcastic, they were edgy, they appeared to be real people.
“The Iranian attempt didn’t have personality, they just had content.”
Iranian trolls posted about Saudi Arabia more than any other geopolitical phrase, mentioning “Saudi” nearly 90,000 times, accusing the Saudis of war crimes, his analysis revealed.
“It was very much ‘Saudis are bad and are doing bad things’. It wasn’t a very sophisticated message,” Mr Nimmo said. “It looks like the Iranian troll operation was probably watching the Russian operation and looked at what works.”
Other popular phrases in Iran’s campaign were “Trump”, “Palestine”, “Israel”, “Syria”, “Quds” [Jerusalem], “Turkey”, “Assad” and “Netanyahu”.
Many of the Iranian trolls posed as news sites or journalists. One account with 1,450 followers, MariaLuis91, which claimed to be a French journalist, posted the same article to hundreds of different people each day throughout 2014.
It is unclear if all of Iran’s operation has been shut down by Twitter, but Mr Nimmo says there are “indications that the websites that have been identified so far are not the full set”.