A diplomatic spat between nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and Israel was sparked by a fake news story linked to an apparent Iranian trolling operation exposed by Twitter in a release detailing hundreds of banned accounts.
Pakistan’s former defence minister hinted at deadly reprisals after being duped by a story on the website AWD News which had falsely claimed that Israel was preparing for nuclear strikes against Islamabad.
The retaliatory tweet by Khawaja Muhammad Asif in 2016 warning of Pakistan’s own nuclear arsenal prompted a swift Israeli denial of the original story. But the episode highlighted concerns about the potentially deadly impact of fake news on real world events and followed concerns about election tampering by Kremlin-backed media operations.
Twitter released an archive of more than one million tweets linked to 770 accounts connected to Iran over six years linked to “potentially state-backed operations”.
The accounts had shared links to awdnews.com nearly 330,000 times in what appears to have been a state-backed effort to promote Iran’s world view.
The Iranian operation was based around 100 fake news websites which took pro-regime messages and re-packaged them. Twitter feeds of fictitious western and Middle Eastern news organisations and journalists apparently located around the world then promoted the stories.
“These narratives include anti-Saudi, anti-Israel, and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as support for specific US policies favourable to Iran, such as the US-Iran nuclear deal,” said security company FireEye which uncovered the operation in August. The discovery prompted Twitter to suspend the accounts.
The micro-messaging platform this week released the full archive of more than ten million tweets linked to Iranian and Russian trolling operations. they included nine million tweets from 3,841 accounts linked to Russia.
State-funded troll operations have been linked to efforts to influence the US presidential elections in 2016, to sow racial discord in the UK, and by both sides in the Gulf dispute as part of psychological operations employed by states.
The FireEye investigation uncovered a series of apparently legitimate media and campaigning groups whose origins and affiliations were unclear.
They included the Liberty Front Press, an Iranian site but which claimed to be rooted in the United States. The website was rebranded as the ‘Berniecrats’ in support of the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Another website that described itself as US Journal featured prominently the Yemen crisis, the Syrian civil war, Bahrain and the Palestinians.
“This was the Iranian operation’s main goal: driving users towards pro-Iranian websites,” according to the US-based Digital Forensic Research Lab which was given first sight of the archive.
The spat between Pakistan and Iran was based on an error-strewn story on AWD News headlined: “Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan send ground troops to Syria on any pretext, will destroy this country with a nuclear attack”.
The story misidentified the Israeli defence minister but was still picked up by his Pakistani counterpart who tweeted that “Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too”.
After the New York Times ran the story, the foreign minister tweeted that his country's nuclear programme was "only a deterrence".
The AWD News site says that "in an era of media disinformation, our focus has essentially been to center on the 'unspoken truth'."