By Jeff Horwitz and Dustin Volz 

Facebook Inc. said it took down a small network of fake accounts and pages tied to the Iranian government, while also warning that foreign actors are attempting to exaggerate their ability to influence the U.S. election in a way that itself could affect the vote.

Tuesday's announcement about the Iranian network is the latest of several in which Facebook said it removed pages and accounts that were limited in scope and had made little headway in their efforts to sow disinformation. The company said it removed 12 Facebook accounts, six pages and 11 Instagram accounts tied to the Iranian government that were focused on the U.S. and Israel. The network had only 820 followers total, and many of the accounts involved were dormant.

At the same time, Facebook officials said they were increasingly on the alert for foreign actors attempting to hype their own impact on the U.S. election in an attempt to "weaponize uncertainty to sow distrust and division" about the vote -- a strategy the company called "perception hacking."

"Overstating the importance of these campaigns plays into the hands of malicious actors, whether foreign or domestic, and we should not take the bait," said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, in a conference call with reporters.

Mr. Gleicher said that there are no guarantees that more significant foreign manipulation efforts were not escaping Facebook's detection, but the apparent shift away from large-scale automated networks of accounts suggests that the people behind such efforts are having less success.

Iran has grown as a source of election interference concern for U.S. intelligence officials in recent weeks, as the country has surprised some analysts with its apparent willingness to directly target Americans with disinformation about voting. Last week, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, said that Iran was responsible for a barrage of emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple states that purported to be from a far-right group and were intended to intimidate voters and incite social unrest. Iran denied the allegations.

One of the Iran-linked accounts taken down by Facebook as part of Tuesday's announcement had sought to amplify the same claims, Mr. Gleicher said.

Facebook also announced Tuesday the removal of another minor network focused on U.S. political issues, this one originating with individuals in Mexico. Facebook noted that it had amplified some content previously linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency, but said it had no proof that the effort was connected.

More concerning, Mr. Gleicher said, were attempts by foreign actors to take credit for mass-scale election interference.

"The threat actors want to be seen as large and impactful," he said. "In particular, we should be conscious of the risk that malicious actors could use fictitious claims to suggest that election infrastructure has been compromised."

Mr. Gleicher said he was particularly concerned that such propagandists would seek to portray high levels of legitimate voting in certain areas as evidence of manipulation.

Earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community said in a public bulletin that Iran was interfering in the election to undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions and harm President Trump. Russia was engaged in a multipronged effort to denigrate Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the alert said, while China, though less active, also wanted to see Mr. Trump fail in his re-election bid.

Intelligence officials have generally viewed Russia as the most serious foreign threat to the 2020 presidential election, based on its widespread disinformation activity on social media in 2016 and a number of warning signs that hackers have been targeting campaigns and American political groups in recent months.

But some security officials have said in recent weeks that Moscow, by some measures, has been relatively quiet compared with four years ago, and that Iran has stepped up its interference ambitions instead.

Mr. Ratcliffe, the intelligence chief, has agreed to have his office brief some congressional representatives from Florida about foreign interference efforts affecting the state, a spokeswoman said Tuesday. Florida, a key battleground state, was among those allegedly targeted by Iran's intimidation operation identified last week.

Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com and Dustin Volz at dustin.volz@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 27, 2020 15:47 ET (19:47 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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