How much is too much? The content shared on social media platforms and how it is regulated by tech companies is an issue that has been in the spotlight for a while now. Safe to say, tech companies are reacting to what can be perceived as incorrect or unverified information being shared on social media platforms. The latest in the line of Google, Facebook and Twitter’s line of fire are accounts linked to Iran, and the disinformation campaign that is believed to have been backed by the state.
Google says it has taken down 39 YouTube channels linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which were driving misinformation and propaganda on the platform. This is in addition to 6 blog accounts as well as 13 Google+ accounts. Google and Facebook took the help of enterprise cybersecurity company FireEye. Based on investigations by FireEye Intelligence’s Information Operations analysis team, the company says they were able to “assess with moderate confidence that this activity originates from Iranian actors.” This was based on a combination of indicators including site registration data and the linking of social media accounts to Iranian phone numbers, as well as the promotion of content consistent which seemed consistent with Iranian political interests.
The specific demographics the state-sponsored campaign attempts to be targeting users in the US, UK, Latin America, and Middle East, according to the data shared by tech companies.
Google isn’t the only tech company battling what it sees as not-authentic content. Facebook has disabled as many as 650 Pages and Groups which were flagged for propaganda and misinformation. Facebook also worked with FireEye. “Based on FireEye’s tip, we started an investigation into “Liberty Front Press” and identified additional accounts and Pages from their network. We are able to link this network to Iranian state media, the Republic of Iran Broadcasting, through publicly available website registration information, as well as the use of related IP addresses and Facebook Pages sharing the same admins,” says Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy, Facebook.
The dangers of misinformation spreading quickly are perhaps explained by the fact that one of the now banned Facebook pages had more than 1,55,000 followers, and these online accounts spent as much as $6,000 for ads on Facebook and Instagram, the popular photo sharing platform.
Twitter, in the meantime, has also disabled as many as 284 accounts linked with the Iran disinformation campaign online. The social network indicates “coordinated manipulation” trends were analysed for some of the now-banned accounts.
Google’s YouTube has more than 1.8 billion monthly users, Facebook has around 2.2 billion active users and Twitter clocks in with a sizeable 335 million users.
This latest episode is perhaps a timely reminder about how tech companies are not just dealing with individuals or organizations spreading misinformation on the social networks, but also the fact that state sponsored content is a very real problem to deal with. However, this the second close sequence in which tech companies have worked together to crack down on a common enemy, which can only be good in the clean-up of information being spread online.
However, what is being written online isn’t the only threat. Unfortunately.
Earlier this week, Microsoft confirmed that Russian hackers had tried to steal data from conservative political organisations including the International Republican Institute and the Hudson Institute, and also found websites which were clones of the US government websites. Unsuspecting users were secretly redirected to web pages created by the hackers, in an attempt to steal passwords and get access to other credentials. While the company’s security sleuths were able to take control of the spoofed web domains, the company says this is the just the latest in the 84 false websites they have shut down over the past two years. Microsoft believes that the attacks were the handiwork of a group under the Russian military intelligence agency, and the same group is also believed to have interfered with the 2016 U.S. election.
Google also says that in the recent months, they have detected blocked Iranian state-sponsored players from targeting political campaigns, journalists, activists and academics, irrespective of their location, with phishing attempts. Phishing, simply put, is an attempt to trick users into providing login details and passwords to an attacker, unknowingly, which they can then use to sign in and take control of your account. “Our improving technology has enabled us to significantly decrease the volume of phishing emails that get through to our users,” says Kent Walker, SVP of Global Affairs, Google.
But why are the tech companies suddenly so active? Not to suggest any conspiracies, but there is pressure on tech companies to clean up the platforms. The Senate Intelligence Committee, in September, will get tech companies to testify about measures taken to prevent the spread of fake news, misinformation etc.