“The threat actors based in Iran are among the more persistent and well-resourced groups trying to operate online, including on our platform,” said the Facebook spokeswoman.
FakeReporter’s researchers found that many of the images and memes the Iranians used came from Iranian websites or could be linked to previous links to Iran on Facebook and Twitter accounts. While researchers believe many countries have done so, the most recent research was the first to detail how a government could intrude into small online community groups and how disinformation campaigns could work with encrypted apps.
US intelligence agencies fear that something similar could happen in the US. Last week the Justice Department said it would block access on three dozen websites linked to Iran’s disinformation efforts. A US intelligence official told the Times that authorities were closely monitoring messaging groups on Telegram, WhatsApp and other apps for Iranian disinformation.
The apps are an ideal means for Iran to penetrate a closed group of people with similar views and spread divisive and extremist messages, said the unauthorized intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. For example, they shared memes comparing Mr. Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler – an offensive comparison that might push some people to more extreme views and make others believe that their online groups have gotten too extreme.
“In these closed messaging groups, people tend to trust each other and share more freely because you feel like they share the same policy and that the app itself is safe and secure,” said Gonen Ben Itzhak, an Israeli lawyer who once worked for the Israeli secret service Shin Bet. He was among dozens of Israelis who said the Iranian effort targeted them.
The people who unknowingly communicated with the Iranians said the pandemic and upheaval in Israeli politics had made them particularly vulnerable to disinformation.
To avoid large crowds during the pandemic, many Israelis have participated in local protests for their city, town, or even their block. To plan them, Israelis formed neighborhood groups on WhatsApp, Telegram, and other social media platforms. Anyone can join the groups. New members often connect by clicking a link shared by a friend or posted on a public website. While some of the groups had a few dozen members, others had over 10,000.