Iran operated an influence operation through hundreds of recently banned Twitter accounts that fabricated new reports to push Tehran's political narrative across the Middle East.
Researchers from the University of Oxford’s online propaganda project studied more than 150,000 tweets in Arabic from 770 accounts identified by Twitter as having possible Iranian origins. The research was carried out on the accounts after they were removed under Twitter's Elections Integrity initiative which targetted information operations on the platform.
The 770 accounts had produced 1,122,936 tweets. Arabic was the third most-used language in tweets from these accounts, behind French and English. Only eight per cent of the tweets were in Farsi.
Unlike other influence and interference attempts online, the accounts did not try to start conversations with other users using dialectic Arabic, but posted links using Modern Standard Arabic.
Nine of the ten most active Twitter accounts imitated Arabic news services, the report found. It said that 69 per cent of the links shared promoted Iranian political messages and that some of the websites favoured by the accounts almost certainly originated in Iran as well.
"We focused our analysis on the tweets written only in Arabic, which mainly targetted Arab users," the report said. "There were 154,326 Arabic tweets in this data set. These tweets gained 337,379 likes."
They posted links to websites or news articles that criticised the Saudi Government and promoted the Iranian government position.
"If an Arab user interacted with any of the Twitter accounts, Facebook pages or websites it would be hard to detect the Iranian origins of these websites. Unfortunately most of the websites are registered with false contact information which makes tracing the origin very hard."
The most linked site among the accounts was alhadathps.com, an attempt to mimic Saudi news site alhadath.net.
The website and the other two top-linked sites have not been active since November 2018 following the move by Twitter to close the accounts.
The most frequently used hashtag among the 770 accounts was #SaudiArabia, with tweets often critical in nature of current affairs and other long-running tensions. Second-most used was #Yemen, another reflection of the Iranian interests in the conflict, according to the researchers.
Twitter isn’t the only place Iranian accounts are co-ordinating. In August 2018, Facebook removed 652 pages, groups, and accounts of Iranian origin from its site and Instagram because of “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour”.
It later removed another 82 for targeting people in Britain and the US.
Separately a European-based consultancy highlighted the potency of influence operations on social media in a new report. Alto Data Analytics studied accounts exhibiting defined "abnormal activity" in publishing digital messages. It's report said that these users had an outsize impact on the political debate.
"This means that less than 0.2 per cent of all users generate around up to 11 per cent of the total activity in the public conversation," it said. "These abnormal activity users demonstrate a tendency to concentrate around specific media, focusing on a determined set of narratives, as can be seen in the accompanying analyses."