“Iranian-based threat actors are some of the more persistent and well-resourced groups attempting to operate online, including on our platform,” the Facebook spokeswoman said.
FakeReporter’s researchers found that many of the images and memes the Iranians used came from Iranian sites, or could be linked back to Facebook and Twitter accounts with previous links to Iran. While researchers believe many countries have been doing this, the recent investigation was the first to detail how a government could burrow its way into small, online community groups and to show how disinformation campaigns operate on encrypted apps.
U.S. intelligence agencies are concerned that the same could be happening in the United States. Last week, the Justice Department said it was blocking access to three dozen websites linked to disinformation efforts by Iran. A U.S. intelligence official told The Times that the authorities were closely monitoring messaging groups on Telegram, WhatsApp and other apps for Iranian disinformation.
The apps are an ideal means for Iran to enter a closed group of people with similar viewpoints and spread divisive and extremist messages, said the intelligence official, who was not authorized to give interviews and spoke on the condition of anonymity. They were sharing memes, for example, that likened Mr. Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler — an offensive comparison that could prod some people into more extreme views and make others think their online groups had become too extreme.
“In these closed messaging groups, people tend to trust one another and share more freely because there is a feeling that they share the same politics, and that the app itself is secure and safe,” said Gonen Ben Itzhak, an Israeli lawyer who once worked for Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. He was among dozens of Israelis who said the Iranian efforts had targeted them.
The people who unknowingly communicated with the Iranians said the pandemic and upheaval in Israeli politics had made them especially vulnerable to the disinformation.
To avoid large crowds during the pandemic, many Israelis participated in local protests for their town, city or even their block. To plan for them, Israelis formed neighborhood groups on WhatsApp, Telegram and other social media platforms. The groups could be joined by anyone. New members often connected by clicking on a link shared by a friend or posted to a public website. While some of the groups had a few dozen members, others had over 10,000.