Iranian Fake News Websites Exposed

The Citizen Lab at University of Toronto have released a case study of Endless Mayfly, “an Iran-aligned network of inauthentic websites and online personas used to spread false and divisive information primarily targeting Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel.”  Here’s how the “disinformation supply chain” worked:
 
Step 1: Create personas: Endless Mayfly personas establish social media identities that are used to amplify specific narratives and propagate Endless Mayfly content.
 
Step 2: Impersonate established media sites: Using typosquatting and scraped content, sites are created to impersonate established media outlets, such as Haaretz and The Guardian, which then serve as platforms for the inauthentic articles.
 
Step 3: Create inauthentic content: Stories combining false claims and factual content are published on the copycat sites or as user-generated content on third-party sites.
 
Step 4: Amplify inauthentic content: Endless Mayfly personas amplify the content by deploying a range of techniques from tweeting the inauthentic articles to privately messaging journalists. Multiple Iran-aligned websites also propagate content in some instances. In one case, Bot activity was observed on Twitter.
 
Step 5: Deletion and redirection: After achieving a degree of amplification, Endless Mayfly operators deleted the inauthentic articles and redirected the links to the legitimate news sites that they had impersonated. References to the false content would continue to exist online, however, further creating the appearance of a legitimate story, while obscuring its origins.
 
One of the fake articles created was purportedly by The Atlantic. The articles were fake and it wasn’t too hard to tell if you’re a savvy news reader, though that doesn’t mean that some legitimate media outlets weren’t fooled.  WhatsApp has tried to fight the spread of fake news by adding app controls that limit the number of times a message can be forwarded to five. But recently Reuters reported how easy it is to get around those controls: 
 
“WhatsApp clones and software tools that cost as little as $14 are helping Indian digital marketers and political activists bypass anti-spam restrictions set up by the world’s most popular messaging app.”
 
Key Findings
• Endless Mayfly is an Iran-aligned network of inauthentic personas and social media accounts that spreads falsehoods and amplifies narratives critical of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel.
• Endless Mayfly publishes divisive content on websites that impersonate legitimate media outlets. Inauthentic personas are then used to amplify the content into social media conversations. In some cases, these personas also privately and publicly engage journalists, political dissidents, and activists.
• Once Endless Mayfly content achieves social media traction, it is deleted and the links are redirected to the domain being impersonated. This technique creates an appearance of legitimacy, while obscuring the origin of the false narrative. We call this technique “ephemeral disinformation”.
• The investigation identifies cases where Endless Mayfly content led to incorrect media reporting and caused confusion among journalists, and accusations of intentional wrongdoing. Even in cases where stories were later debunked, confusion remained about the intentions and origins behind the stories.
• Despite extensive exposure of Endless Mayfly’s activity by established news outlets and research organisations, the network is still active, albeit with some shifts in tactics.
 
CitizenLab:       NiemanLab:        
 
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