Facebook takes down fake Iranian accounts that posed as Scottish locals

The accounts posted about football and other hobbies to seem more real.

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Facebook disabled a network of fake accounts that posed as English and Scottish locals, but were actually an Iran-based influence operation. The company detailed the takedowns in its latest report on coordinated inauthentic behavior on its platform.

The network was relatively small — eight accounts on Facebook and 126 on Instagram — though it had amassed about 77,000 followers, according to the company. Facebook’s security researchers didn’t indicate exactly who in Iran was behind the effort, or what their motives were, but said some of the people involved had a “background in teaching English as a foreign language.”

“This network posted photos and memes in English about current events in the UK, including supportive commentary about Scottish independence and criticism of the UK government,” Facebook writes in its report. In a call with reporters, Facebook’s Global IO Threat Intelligence Lead, Ben Nimmo, said that it’s not the first time the company has caught Iran-linked fake accounts targeting Scotland, but that the latest network stood out for its “artisanal” approach to the fake personas.

“What was unique about this case was the effort that the operators took to make their fakes look like real people,” Nimmo said. He noted the accounts spent considerable time posting about their “side interests,” like football, in an attempt to boost their credibility. Some of the accounts also lifted profile photos from real celebrities or media personalities, and regularly updated the images in order to appear more real. Other accounts used fake photos generated by AI programs.

Overall, Facebook says that the fake accounts weren’t particularly successful as the most popular account had only reached about 4,000 followers, about half of whom were actually located in the UK. “In a way, this is more like an old fashioned pre-internet influence operation, creating detailed fake personas and trying not to be noticed,” Nimmo said.