November 6, 2020
Amid a tense U.S. election with seemingly no end in sight, Iran has been working on an effort to sow chaos in a nation already so divided and uncertain about its future. Part of that disinformation campaign was uncovered by the Justice Department Thursday with the seizure of 27 domains the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps used “to covertly influence United States policy and public opinion.”
“Within the last month we have announced seizures of Iran’s weapons, fuel, and covert influence infrastructure,” said John C. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security. “As long as Iran’s leaders are trying to destabilize the world through the state-sponsorship of terrorism and the taking of hostages, we will continue to enforce U.S. sanctions and take other legal steps to counter them.”
According to the Justice Department, the domains weren’t registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Instead, the websites were disguised as domestic pages and some of them even posed as news sites.
The FBI is aggressively investigating any evidence of foreign influence and the unlawful spread of disinformation by hostile nations.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Craig D. Fair
“The FBI is aggressively investigating any evidence of foreign influence and the unlawful spread of disinformation by hostile nations. Today, we seized 27 additional domains that Iran’s IRGC was illegally using in attempt to manipulate public opinion in other countries, including the United States,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Craig D. Fair.
He added, “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.”
In October, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe warned of Iran’s influence over an election just days away. That time, it was evidenced through emails Tehran allegedly sent from accounts that posed as “Proud Boys,” a controversial group that has been called out for purported extremism, to threaten voters.
Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert, told this reporter Friday that while there’s no definitive proof that Tehran’s disinformation campaigns have changed American minds, the attempts certainly pin Americans against each other.
“It is unclear who these latest efforts reached and if any minds were changed, let alone if they even remotely impacted the election,” he explained. “But one thing is clear, that Tehran intends to inject itself into our partisan divides so as to critique the American system and handicap its efforts abroad.”
Taleblu added that “Americans who think our domestic debates and societal fault lines won’t be exploited by our authoritarian adversaries abroad are sorely mistaken. To be clear, this does not mean opinions don’t deserve to be aired or expressed, but it means understanding the full weight of living in the information age, where information is another domain for warfare.”
In order to counter Iran’s efforts to create chaos, the Trump administration has chosen to increase sanctions and carry out a maximum pressure campaign to halt Iran’s nefarious activities both foreign and domestic. That effort could not be possible without the support of social media companies monitoring threats online and alerting the U.S. government to them, as they did in this case.
“One small success story in all of this is that Washington has been able to quickly attribute Iranian efforts back to the regime, as well as thicken existing public-private partnerships with actors in silicon valley. Such partnerships that can gather the assets and capabilities from the tech, legal, intelligence, and national security worlds will need to be increasingly leveraged to detect, disrupt, and deter Iranian cyber activity against U.S. interests.”
You can follow Jennie S. Taer on Twitter @JennieSTaer