Iranian state broadcaster attempted to interfere in Scottish independence referendum

Iran’s state broadcaster attempted to interfere with the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, using fake accounts, memes, and imitations of The Scotsman’s cartoons in an attempt to disrupt the democratic process, according to new reports released by Facebook and a leading social media analysis firm.
The Iranian-tied Facebook posts attacked the case for remaining in the Union. Picture: GraphikaThe Iranian-tied Facebook posts attacked the case for remaining in the Union. Picture: Graphika
The Iranian-tied Facebook posts attacked the case for remaining in the Union. Picture: Graphika

In what has been described as one of the earliest attempts of foreign interference in Western democracy using social media, accounts tied to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB) attacked the economic case for the Union and portrayed the then Prime Minister David Cameron as “the embodiment of English oppression.”

The Iranian-backed influence campaign also set up a Facebook page entitled The Scotsman Cartoon - an apparent attempt to imitate this title’s award-winning political cartoons - to spread pro-independence messaging.

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It is among hundreds of pages, accounts, and groups taken down by Facebook in the past week for what the company described as “coordinated inauthentic behaviour.”

It said individuals behind this network relied on a combination of authentic and fake accounts to engage in “foreign interference,” not only in Scotland, but the US and a slew of nations across the Middle East and Africa/

Prior to shutting the accounts and pages down on 30 April, Facebook shared details of them with Graphika, a New York-based social network analysis firm, so that it could carry out an independent assessment.

Its report, published today, found that after attempts in 2012 to promote the then US presidential hopeful, Ron Paul, in the Republican primaries, and posts designed to amplify the Occupy movement’s messaging, the IRIB turned its attention to Scotland in late 2013 as the indyref campaign intensified.

“This revolved around an account called Sara Bill that also posted about the Occupy movement, and a single page called The Scotsman Cartoon, most likely named to resemble leading Scottish daily The Scotsman,” Graphika explained.

“The page offered a series of cartoons in a wide range of visual styles but on a common theme: Scotland’s need for independence. Many of the cartoons attacked then Prime Minister David Cameron, portraying him as the embodiment of English oppression.”

The Sara Bill account’s posts include links to a BBC Scotland news story about an upsurge in Yes Scotland members, as well as cartoons and videos of Croatian football fans, apparently endorsing Scottish independence.

The Scotsman Cartoon page - which was active between October 2013 and the following March - featured cartoons lampooning Mr Cameron, and criticising the economic argument for the Union.

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Screenshots of some of the posts included in Graphika’s report show that they attracted as many as several dozen likes apiece from Facebook users. The Scotsman Cartoon Page accrued a total of 834 likes, despite the fact it was only active for four and a half months.

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Facebook removes pro-Scottish independence page linked to Iran

Such numbers, says Graphika, was not enough to have the desired impact of influencing the referendum.

“None of these posts achieved viral impact, measured in the number of likes, shares, or comments,” it said.

“Typical posts scored a few dozen reactions, sometimes a little over 100. This is not negligible, but it is a long way away from being an effort on the sort of scale that might have had an impact on the referendum.”

It added that the IRIB network abandoned the disruption campaign “relatively quickly,” with Graphika assessing it as a “short lived experiment.”

But it went on: “Nevertheless, Facebook’s revelation is of historical interest: it provides a confirmed data point on attempted foreign interference in Western democratic exercises as far back as 2012, a full electoral cycle before the Russian interference of 2016.”

It is not the first time Facebook has identified and removed pro-Scottish independence content originating in Iran.

In August 2018 it shut down a Facebook page entitled Free Scotland 2014, which has over 200,000 likes.

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The array of IRIB accounts not only targeted the UK, but the US and a host of other countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, and Tunisia.

In all, Facebook said it had removed 118 pages, 389 accounts, 27 groups, and six Instagram accounts linked to IRIB last month.

“Our investigation linked this activity to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation,” the company said.

“We found this network as part of our internal investigations into suspected coordinated inauthentic behaviour, based in part on some links to our past takedowns.”

Elsewhere in its assessment, Graphika said that the Iranian network was responsible for setting up a website known as Toons Online, which published English language political cartoons united by “a thread of pro Iranian sentiment.” The cartoons included attacks on Mr Cameron and the then US president Barack Obama.

It observed that in late 2019 and early this year, the Iranian network’s assets also promoted the Arabic-language service of the Kremlin-backed news provider, Sputnik.

Graphika explained: “This was not merely a question of sharing content from the Russian broadcaster, but of promoting it as ‘the best & strongest TV news channel in the Arab world’.

“That a covert network run by Iran’s state broadcaster chose to advertise an overt network run by Russia’s state broadcaster is noteworthy, but too slender a lead to carry interpretation at this stage.”

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