Tehran. Photocredit: © 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP
By Emma Woollacott
A pro-Iran group has been faking news websites to spread misinformation about Israel and Saudi Arabia.
An investigation by Citizen Labs has revealed that a group dubbed Endless Mayfly has been impersonating major media sites, using fake Twitter accounts to spread false articles and targeting journalists with fake stories.
In one example, Lahav Harkov, a contributing editor for The Jerusalem Post, was contacted by one ‘Bina Melamed’ who called his attention to an article that appeared to be on the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center website.
In the article, former Mossad director Tamir Pardo was apparently quoted saying that former Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman had been dismissed by Netanyahu for being a Russian agent. If genuine, Pardo’s words could have severely strained relations between Russia and Israel.
But as an investigation by Citizen Lab has revealed, both the quote and the website – along with many others – were faked.
While the website looked identical to the real Harvard site, its the address was ‘belfercenter.net’ rather than the genuine ‘belfercenter.org’. The article highlighted by Melamed was a fake.
And according to Citizen Lab, Endless Mayfly also created fake articles that appeared to come from genuine news websites including The Guardian, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, The Independent, The Atlantic and Politico.
The group creates fake news sites that closely mimic those of legitimate media sites, then circulates screenshots of the articles on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Even after the original fake news articles are taken down, these screenshots continue to circulate.
“Our investigation identifies cases where Endless Mayfly content led to incorrect media reporting and caused confusion among journalists, and accusations of intentional wrongdoing,” say the researchers.
“Even in cases where stories were later debunked, confusion remained about the intentions and origins behind the stories.”
The stories concerned fall into three main categories. More than half aim to stir up discord between Saudi Arabia and its neighbours and allies, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Some imply that Israel and Saudi Arabia are in cahoots, and others that Saudi Arabia is involved in terrorism. In at least three cases, fake articles were picked up by the mainstream news.
“Based on the evidence gathered from our investigation, we conclude with moderate confidence that Iran or an Iran-aligned actor operating the Endless Mayfly network systematically attempted to influence global perceptions, presumably to achieve geopolitical outcomes, using a stream of false and misleading content,” say the authors.
“The campaign was neither strikingly clever nor particularly sensitive to the culture of the intended audience. However, it eluded blocking and detection for years, generated some social media engagement, and achieved a few successful cross-overs into mainstream news.”