If you’ve spotted any cartoons mocking President Trump’s response to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic on Facebook or Instagram of late, it may have been the work of a group closely associated with the Iranian government.
Start a Homeland Security degree at American Military University.
Researchers from Graphika, a New York-based startup that analyzes social networks, claim the crew, referred to as the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), has been active on those Facebook-owned platforms and Twitter as they try to spread disinformation about coronavirus. IUVM’s modus operandi typically involves creating or copying news, cartoons or videos that amplify Iranian government narratives, and spread them across the social media posing as journalists or official sources.
Amongst IUVM’s latest narratives are suggestions that COVID-19 was a biological weapon created by the U.S., with one cartoon mimicking the classic mobile game Angry Birds, with the birds being virus cells standing in front of an American flag ready to be launched at the enemy China.
That image appeared in late February on a Facebook page simply titled Daily News, according to a Graphika report released Wednesday and handed to Forbes ahead of publication. Despite suggestions from various politicians that the virus may have been crafted in either American or Chinese labs, there’s no evidence to back those conspiracy theories, and China’s official stance is that it spread via live animal markets. Most scientists believe it transferred from bats to humans.
Other Facebook groups Graphika suspected of being created by IUVM, also in late February, included two that appeared to be focused on Africa, Ethiopianow and Durban Daily. Both were seen posting articles from Iranian state media without attribution.
On Instagram, Graphika found IUVM created a western persona, @chriistophercarlos3, which appeared to be a personal account, but posted much the same content as appeared on Facebook and other IUVM-linked sources. That included a cartoon depicting Trump as a virus cell and other disinformation tracked on iuvmarchive.com. The Instagram account is no longer accessible.
Facebook hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Twitter has suspended one account, @PressMedia9, that the researchers said was far more overt with its promotion of IUVM content. It’s also been removed.
Outside of social media, IUVM has been using its own website, iuvmpress[.]com, and another apparent covert effort, AFtruth[.]com, to disseminate the same Iranian propaganda on COVID-19, having pivoted in late February from criticizing Trump for the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani.
Iran has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. According to the Iranian regime’s own data, more than 60,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 4,000 have died, though reports have questioned whether the government has underreported the figures.
Takedowns are working
Despite the Iranian activity, account takedowns by Facebook and other major tech companies are working, according to Camille Francois, chief innovation officer at Graphika. “That ‘continuous enforcement’ part is crucial for actors like this, who are persistent and voluminous across platforms,” Francois said.
“We do see these successive waves of takedowns across platforms being effective: while this operator continues to use social media for its campaigns, the scale is smaller every time we see them come back, and takedowns happen increasingly rapidly. That’s likely why we see this Iranian operator make heavier use of websites, and having a harder time promoting their campaigns on social media accounts.”
IUVM’s disinformation campaigns came to light back in 2018 when cybersecurity firm FireEye released a report on its activities. “Since then we’ve seen all major platforms take down parts of the operation on their products, and continue to look out for these campaigns,” added Francois.