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Behind the takedown machine.
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Facebook removed a page “tied to Iran.” The Indians who ran it are bewildered

By Aria Thaker

On May 28, Facebook announced that it had taken down around 90 accounts and pages linked to Iran, as part of efforts to curb “coordinated inauthentic behaviour.” The social media platform carries out such purges about once a month, if not more often.

What goes on behind such takedowns and what happens to the affected people? An example from India sheds light on this.

A few months ago, on March 26, Facebook removed 2,632 pages, groups, and accounts, including over 500 linked to “networks tied to Iran.” These operations “posted news stories on current events and frequently repurposed and amplified content from Iranian state media” about various topics, Facebook said.

A think tank that partners with Facebook, The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR Lab), wrote a blog post that day about some of the purportedly Iran-linked pages. Of the pages Facebook shared with DFR Lab (not all of them get passed on before they’re taken down), 14 catered to an Indian audience.

Of these 14, the one with the most followers—over 180,000—was called The Leaders News. Its standalone website says The Leaders News seeks to “play a big role in (the) fight against rumours and fake news spread by corporate-sponsored media houses.” Its Facebook posts were, however, “primarily copies, with attribution, of articles from known Iranian laundering sites exposed in the earlier takedowns, including IUVM,” according to DFR Lab.

IUVM, or the International Union of Virtual Media, is an Iran-based propaganda network that has been extensively reported on by DFR Lab and other outlets including Reuters and Quartz, as well as the cybersecurity company FireEye.

Anwar Ali Tsarpa, an academic based in New Delhi, wrote for The Leaders News for around six months, until December 2018. After that, he quit to pursue research. While he was involved, he would post content onto both the Facebook page and the website.

On March 26, Tsarpa tweeted that his Facebook account had been deleted. He tagged the social networking site, too, saying, “Will you please show me what is wrong in my Facebook posts?” Tsarpa also uploaded a screenshot of the message Facebook had served him upon his account’s deactivation, explaining that the site could not give him “any additional information,” for “safety and security reasons.”

Initially, Tsarpa thought he had lost his account because he was involved in digital mobilisation for farmer rights. He did not realise that The Leaders News could be linked to the deactivation until Quartz asked him about it, and showed him the Facebook blog post.

Tsarpa and his friend Ashraf Zaidi, the Delhi-based editor of The Leaders News, both told Quartz that the outlet has no connection to Iran. These denials, however, may not help as Facebook has denied both individuals the opportunity to appeal against the removals. Zaidi said his own Facebook account, which listed him as a manager of The Leaders News page, was taken down around March 26.

The network

Interestingly, The Leaders News started off—and amassed almost all of its page likes—by using completely different names. For the first month and a half of its life, the page alternated between various fan page names related to Hardik Pandya, an Indian cricketer. Only in later months did it change to The Leaders News and begin posting links from the website.

When asked about the cricket fan page, Zaidi said, “Anwar (Ali Tsarpa) did that…I don’t know much about that.” Tsarpa denied knowing about it.

The site’s content over the past several months has almost entirely consisted of reposted articles from across the web, especially west Asian and south Asian news sites. Many of the sites from which The Leaders News regularly posts are either state-run Iranian outlets or ones seen to propagate a pro-Iran narrative.

Changing its name, as The Leaders News did, is “the kind of behaviour which probably counts as inauthentic,” said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the DFR Lab.

“Just looking at that front page (of the website), the combination of Al-Masdar News, SANA, Islamic Republic News Agency, Press TV—that’s very solidly Iranian and pro-Iranian (outlets),” Nimmo said. “The behaviour is very much in line with a propaganda operation whose task is to amplify Iranian regime messaging.” 

Content posted from other sites, including Indian ones like The Wire and global platforms like Al Jazeera, act as “camouflage” for the propaganda, Nimmo added.

The Leaders News

The managers

Both Tsarpa and Zaidi vehemently deny any Iran connection. “I don’t think anything which could be called Iranian propaganda is uploaded on the website,” Tsarpa said.

Running the site doesn’t cost much, said Zaidi. “We have friends who follow and support resistance leaders; they support us voluntarily and work with us…There are already a lot of websites that write good content. So we pick up that content.” Only “we Indians were managers of the page, there was none from Iran,” he added.

An archived link of the “Info and Ads” section of The Leaders News’ Facebook page, saved by DFR Lab before the takedowns, shows it had seven managers from India, which is the “primary location of people who manage” the page. (This, however, does not rule out the possibility of it having Iran-based managers, though there would have been fewer than seven.)

Facebook

Zaidi said his friend Abhimanyu Kohar, a social activist, was also involved with the site. Kohar, however, said he had “nothing to do with The Leaders News,” though he is friends with Tsarpa and Zaidi.

He does appear in two videos posted on The Leader News’ YouTube channel, in which he speaks about Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Rafale deal controversy. The website “downloaded those videos from my page and posted on their own page. That’s not my headache,” Kohar said.

The YouTube channel also has several videos by “IUVM TV,” such as one that asks if Saudi Arabia’s violence against Yemen’s people means it is “transforming into another Israel.” Another video, the channel’s most offensive, is blatantly anti-Semitic and espouses Holocaust denial.

“Laundromats” for propaganda such as IUVM “also amplify Iranian allies…they’ll tend to be pro-Assad, they’ll tend to be pro-Hezbollah. They’ll tend to be anti-Saudi, anti-Israel, anti-American,” according to Nimmo.

When asked about IUVM, Zaidi said it’s a website that “covers news about Iran.” Tsarpa, however, said he didn’t know anything other than the fact that IUVM was “run by Ashraf Zaidi.”

Why inauthentic behaviour?

How it zeroed in on The Leaders News for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” is a question that only Facebook can answer. The company did not comment on the matter.

Company blog posts, however, provide some general clues on how Facebook investigates such issues. Its teams look for connections between accounts that are coordinating with one another, by finding “technical signals that link the accounts together,” said a blog post from last November.

These links can be fleeting. For example, Facebook said last July that a page taken down for coordinated inauthentic behaviour had a Russian troll farm account listed as its admin for only seven minutes. 

While Nimmo thinks The Leaders News is of a piece with other Iranian propaganda operations, he also notes ways in which it stands apart. “There were two odd things—one was the higher number of followers it had, which was explained by the fact that it used to be a cricket fan page,” he said. “The other one is that it did have this cluster of managers in India rather than elsewhere. A lot of the others we saw had more of a mixture of some local country managers and some in Iran…that size of a local footprint is a bit unusual.”

Towards greater transparency

Facebook’s content removals related to Iran have been criticised as an indication that the company is capitulating to US president Donald Trump’s hardline policies. An opinion piece in Wired says that under current company policy, “Trump can tell Facebook to de-platform any part of any foreign government.”

Takedowns, in general, are “often not fully transparent,” said Apar Gupta, a New Delhi-based lawyer and director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. Companies often do not inform the public about “recourse procedures, in which you can contest a takedown,” he added.

For instance, news of Facebook taking down The Leaders News only came to light from the DFR Lab post. 

“For coordinated inauthentic behaviour, they (companies) need to specify what are their guidelines and how have they programmed the software which flags it and selects it,” Gupta said. “How does the human review happen, what are the determinations, and how is the ultimate decision taken?”

Such criticisms of Facebook grew stronger in India following its April 01 purge, in which hundreds of political pages were removed before the general election.