Clickability tracking pixel

U.S. Justice Department Seizes Iranian Disinformation Websites

Some 27 websites posing as news outlets were seized by federal authorities this week to cut down on disinformation surrounding the presidential election. The sites had ties to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

by William Turton, Bloomberg News / November 5, 2020
Federal officials said they seized 27 websites linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for allegedly posing as news outlets to spread disinformation. Dreamstime/TNS

(TNS) —  Federal officials said they seized 27 websites linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for allegedly posing as news outlets to spread disinformation.

Wednesday's actions follow the seizure of 92 Iranian domains in October, part of the U.S. government's ongoing efforts to combat foreign disinformation in U.S. elections. The sites were targeted at American audiences, though some of the sites listed in the affidavit are entirely in Arabic or focused on news in the Middle East, according to archives seen by Bloomberg.

"The anti-U.S., anti-Saudi and anti-Israeli material being promoted is in line with Iranian foreign policy and similar to previously identified Iranian covert influence campaigns," according to a federal affidavit. "Also consistent with known Iranian covert influence campaigns, the network accomplishes Iranian propaganda objectives by manipulating U.S. public discourse and sowing discord in the American people through use of U.S. social media platforms and inauthentic news media outlets."

The 27 sites, with names including jordan-times.com, yemenpress.org and criticalstudies.org, appear to recycle articles and claim them as their own, according to archives of the sites viewed by Bloomberg. For example, criticalstudies.org claimed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders among its "writers," but the article supposedly written by Sanders was cut and pasted from an op-ed he had written in USA Today in 2018.

The takedown was done in coordination with U.S. technology companies.

"Thanks to our ongoing collaboration with Google, Facebook, and Twitter, the FBI was able to disrupt this Iranian propaganda campaign and we will continue to pursue any attempts by foreign actors to spread disinformation in our country," FBI Special Agent in Charge Craig D. Fair said in a statement. According to the affidavit, cybersecurity firm FireEye first surfaced the Iranian disinformation sites in August 2018.

The Justice Department said it was able to seize the websites because they were purchased from domain registration companies based in the U.S. The sites lifted content from legitimate news sources, according to the affidavit, including Politico, RawStory and CNN.

The sites also used fake personas claiming to be Americans. "Many of the personas used by the network appear well-crafted and detailed," the affidavit says. "For example, persona 'Liam Jay Campbell' claims to be "a journalist and English MA graduate from Sacramento,' claims to have attended California State University, and maintains social media accounts on Twitter and Reddit."

One website, libertyfrontpress.com, supposedly contained original content, albeit in "poorly written English," according to the affidavit. That website maintained a social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, but was connected to an Iranian phone number, despite claiming to operate in the U.S., according to the affidavit.

©2020 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs