Meta shuts down Iran-based fake Instagram accounts aimed at UK users

Accounts posted photos and memes about current events and criticism of the UK government

The social network Instagram's logo appears on a tablet screen. AFP

Facebook parent company Meta removed a network of fake accounts that originated in Iran and were aimed Instagram users in Scotland, with content supporting Scottish independence, the company's investigators said on Thursday.

The network used fake accounts to pose as locals in England and Scotland, posting photos and memes about current events and criticism of the UK government, Meta said.

The accounts organised their content around common hashtags promoting the cause, though they at times misspelled them, the company said.

The accounts also posted about football and UK cities, likely to make the fictitious personas seem more authentic.

Some of the fake accounts used profile pictures probably created through AI techniques, while others used photos of media personalities and celebrities from the UK and Iraq as profile pictures, Meta said.

In a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, Scots voted 55 per cent-45 per cent to remain in the UK, but both Brexit and the British government's handling of the Covid-19 crisis have bolstered support for independence among Scots and demands for a second vote.

Meta said its investigation found links to people in Iran, including those with a background in teaching English as a foreign language.

It said the operation had some connections with a small, Iran-based network it previously removed in December 2020, which was mostly aimed at Arabic, French and English-speaking audiences using fake accounts, but did not provide further details on who might be behind the activity.

“We've seen a range of operations coming from Iran over the last few years,” said Ben Nimmo, Meta's global threat intelligence lead for influence operations, in a press briefing. “It's not a monolithic environment.”

The social media company said it had removed eight Facebook accounts and 126 Instagram accounts as part of this latest network in December for violating its rules against co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour.

Meta also said in December it had removed a network that originated primarily in Mexico that was aimed at audiences in countries including Honduras, Ecuador and El Salvador, and a network that originated in Turkey and was aimed at people in Libya.

Updated: January 20, 2022, 10:52 PM