The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran-linked Twitter accounts spread anti-Saudi sentiments in Arabic, report finds

Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts last year that were suspected of links to Iran. (Alex Flynn/Bloomberg News)

In August last year, Twitter announced that it had suspended hundreds of accounts that appeared to be linked to Iran. The reason? Twitter said the accounts had engaged in “coordinated manipulation.”

Then, in October, Twitter made tweets from 770 accounts “potentially originating in Iran” publicly available.

And when researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute analyzed the languages those accounts tweeted in, they discovered a trend that may shed light on how Iran seeks to wield influence online: The majority of the tweets published by the Iran-linked accounts were written in French, English and Arabic, with only 8 percent written in Iran’s official language, Farsi.

In an intensive study of the Arabic-language tweets the Oxford Internet Institute released on Wednesday, researchers determined that “the most widely shared websites included in Arabic tweets push an Iranian political narrative, including criticism of Saudi Arabia and support of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.”

While researchers cannot definitively say who was behind the accounts, Mona Elswah, a researcher at Oxford who worked on the study, said they “would seem to be coming from the Iranian government because they fed the Iranian government narrative.”

When Twitter released the Iran-linked account archives alongside archives of thousands of accounts affiliated with the Russia-based Internet Research Agency last year, the social media site described them as “two previously disclosed and potentially state-backed operations on our service.”

Elswah told The Washington Post she believes her research “is the first to prove that there is an Iranian interference in the Arab world that is taking place on Twitter.”

Out of the Iran-linked accounts, the most popular had nearly 42,000 followers and claimed to be based in Saudi Arabia, the Oxford study reported. The hashtag used most often in Arabic translated to “Saudi Arabia,” and researchers found that “anti-Saudi hashtags were salient,” including one hashtag calling the Saudi king corrupt. Iran and the Saudi-led coalition are on opposite sides of the war in Yemen — and in the accounts’ Arabic language tweets, the word “Yemen” was the second-most-popular hashtag.

As The Post reported in October, analysts at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab previously researched how some Twitter accounts originating from Iran worked to “spread regime messaging through covert channels.” And Twitter suspended the hundreds of Iran-linked accounts in August shortly after Facebook announced it had uncovered an Iranian disinformation campaign on its site.

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, intense scrutiny has emerged over Russian disinformation campaigns on social media. Elswah said she found that when comparing potential Iranian interference to Russian interference, Russian accounts are more advanced and “more creative."

Russian users have impersonated Americans or Brits to engage in casual conversations. The Iran-linked accounts tweeting in Arabic, on the other hand, are “very outdated,” she said. Similarly, last year’s Atlantic Council study found that Iranian accounts were “ill-adapted to the platforms they sought to use.”

Instead of attempting to engage in person-to-person conversations, many of the Arabic-language accounts included in Oxford’s study “use a very formal way of speaking,” Elswah said. Their tweets were typically written in Modern Standard Arabic, the standardized version of Arabic that is not normally used colloquially or on social media, but that media outlets use to enable speakers of various Arabic dialects to understand the same text. The study said that out of the 10 most active accounts tweeting in Arabic, nine “imitated Arabic news services, describing themselves as news services from various Arab countries.”

The “Arabic tweets were not aiming to socially engage with other Arab users but rather to promote certain news websites,” the study concluded, noting that the majority of the links led to Arabic-language websites promoting pro-Iran narratives.

At the same time as Americans struggle to identify fake news, there is concern about a lack of media literacy in the Middle East and North Africa, Elswah said. “People are not equipped to . . . criticize the news,” she said. “It makes it much easier to plant this information based on fear.”

The study may have determined that the accounts’ interaction and engagement with users could “be considered to be quite limited,” with an average of only two likes per Arabic tweet. But even so, the messaging “exists, and it’s there, and it’s well-played,” Elswah said. “Maybe in the future it will evolve."

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