Facebook suggests that Iran targeted Scottish Independence referendum with fake online accounts

Facebook has suggested that Iran was engaged in attempted online election and political manipulation as far back as 2011 and tried to influence the result of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

A report by Graphika – which has been allowed access to Facbook’s data – says that there were thousands of accounts and these promoted Ron Paul’s presidential bid and the Occupy movement as well as a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum. The company suggests that such efforts may have been more designed to test the water than significant operations, but that fake accounts linked to Iran’s state broadcaster were promoting messages favourable to that state. Arabic language efforts aimed at Iran’s neighbours were much bigger operations.

Graphika makes clear that many of the posts were entreaties to follow Islamic teachings and amplify state messaging as well as attempts at audience building. It also suggests that for a period some of the fake accounts promoted the arabic language version of Russian broadcaster Sputnik. But there were activities related to elections:

“This activity focused briefly on three main topics: the Republican primaries of early 2012, the Occupy movement of the same period, and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. In each case, the network used a combination of fake accounts, pages, and groups to push its messaging, with the fake accounts sharing and promoting the pages and groups. Rather than the website-heavy content of later efforts, this was much more based on visuals, particularly cartoons. None of these posts yielded major viral impact, measured in likes or shares, and some of the pages were abandoned after only a few days… 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.”

Specifically talking about the Scottish Independence referendum, Graphika says:

“None of these posts achieved viral impact, measured in the number of likes, shares, or comments. 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. In March 2014, six months before the Scottish referendum, the cartoons page stopped posting, for unknown reasons.”

This report is interesting for two main reasons. First in that it shows that Iran was apparently active in this field before Russia’s Internet Research Agency started. Second, because it confirms the sorts of operations that could be undertaken, although it appears that Iran decided that attempts to use cartoons to influence western elections were not likely to be successful.

Reading List – 21st February 2020

Three staff of the American NGO NDI have been expelled from Togo. The three were accredited as election observers by the Togolese electoral commission and had been working with a non-partisan local group to help them plan domestic observation of the forthcoming presidential election.

 

As Iran heads to the polls today, CNN’s Luke McGee previews the election in which hardline candidates are set to dominate as many moderates were barred from running. However the bigger factor might be turnout.

 

 

Special polling stations will be set up so that Israelis who are quarantined will still be able to vote in the March 2nd general election.

 

 

Axios reports that President Trump has cut back on his spending on Facebook despite the platform abstaining from making policy changes that would hurt him. As social media platforms signalled they might change policies on political advertising, Trump lobbied Facebook hard not to restrict his ability to mictro-target. While his spending on Facebook adverts is still significant, it is now a much smaller proportion of his advertising budget having fallen from a monthly high of 72% to just 14% and most ads are aimed at increasing his private voter information lists.

 

Elections to watch – 2020

It’s no surprise that the USA will host the biggest, most expensive and most important elections of the year on November 3rd. Donald Trump’s efforts to gain a second term will be played out across news bulletins around the world, whilst his various Democratic opponents will aim to get airtime when faced with the most media-dominant President in history.

It is often said that a second term president becomes a lame duck almost immediately, but that won’t be the case for Trump who has shown that he is willing to make quick, and often un-signalled, decisions on major issues. Apart from tax reform, Trump has relied less on legislation than almost any President before him. But he has been willing to withdraw from international agreements and upset the established liberal world order like never before.

Down-ballot, the chances of radical shifts in the House or Senate are slim, but we will see how the impeachment efforts will play out on those races.

However the US elections are far from being the only pivotal polls in 2020. Two contests – in Georgia and Belarus – will help us to understand the limits of Russian influence in countries in their immediate orbit and a third – Serbia – is a traditional Russian ally.

There are also re-runs of elections held originally in 2019 which, for different reasons, failed to produce a result. Israel will hold its third election in a year whilst Bolivia will attempt a clean election following the departure of Evo Morales.

There are also key contests in Egypt and Myanmar – countries dominated by the military – and elections in South Korea, North Macedonia and Iran which will be closely watched by foreign governments as they could signal the impact of international decisions on domestic attitudes. 

Iran, Parliament (March)

Iran continues to play its role as the grit in the oyster of Middle East politics with a network of official and semi-official proxies around the region. The country has always had its reformers and its hardliners and the spring election will be another test of strength between those factions.

Elections in Iran are largely conducted on a professional and democratic basis but with all but 5% of candidates (who represent religious minorities) subject to approval by the Islamic authorities.

The last elections in 2016 saw reformists emerge as the largest faction but without an overall majority. Iran has a reputation for huge numbers of candidates as 6,200 candidates ran for the 290 seats in 2016.

As well as its funding for militant groups and factions, Iran has also built up significant cyber capabilities and has allegedly used them extensively to interfere with the functions of other states for the past two years. Its nuclear programme is of concern to the west and the USA has pulled out of the JCPOA leading some to wonder whether military strikes are imminent. Iran’s position on the Staits of Hormuz also gives it unique powers to affect the world’s oil supplies.

Every country will be watching these elections with interest to see if the results may affect any of these interests. But it seems safe to predict that there will be no outcome that would comprehensively reverse any aspect of Iran’s current course.

Israel, Parliament (March)

The third election in Israel in a year will again be between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz with the former having won his Likud leadership primary at the end of 2019. This poll comes after a second indecisive election and the failure to form a government under Israel’s list election system which splits Parliamentary representation between ten different parties. 

It is impossible to foresee a majority party emerging and this contest will see voters tasked with giving either Likud or Gantz’s Blue and White the upper hand. But there is no provision for what might happen if the parties are again evenly split. Netanyahu has refused to give up the post of Prime Minister in any coalition in which his party features and Gantz refuses to serve under the longest serving Prime Minister the country has ever had.

Bolivia, President, Chamber of Deputies and Senate (March or April)

President Evo Morales stepped aside at the end of 2019 after his election win was found to be corruptly obtained. He won’t be a candidate in the re-run, but that won’t prevent the poll being highly controversial and tightly fought. In the aftermath of the failed poll, Morales sought asylum in Mexico as the army took a grip on the country and many of his former supporters were arrested. Since then there has been a general de-escalation in tensions and detainees have been released. Interim president Jeanine Añez will remain in charge until the vote in March or April.

North Macedonia, Parliament (April)

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called these early elections after the failure of EU members (largely at France’s behest) to agree the start of accession talks for his country and Albania. The country is also due to become a full member of NATO in the spring. In the last couple of years North Macedonia has formally changed its name to satisfy a long-standing complaint from Greece as well as undertaken large-scale structural reforms to bring it more into line with EU norms. The reward for these unpopular measures was to be the start of the long journey towards EU accession.

The election will pit Zaev’s SDSM against the anti-agreement VMRO-DPMNE of Hristijan Mickoski. The SDSM candidate won the presidential election in May 2019 but the parliamentary poll will be closely fought.

A win for Zaev’s party might give him and his supporters among existing members of the EU a boost before the next summit in June where France may be persuaded to change her stance. New EU President Croatia hs promised to keep the issue high up the institution’s agenda. A win for the opposition would surely end any prospect of further integration measures for the foreseeable period.

South Korea, Parliament (April)

There are significant domestic issues at play in this year’s legislative elections but these will play second fiddle in the minds of other countries to relations between South Korea and its neighbour to the north. At times President Moon Jae-In has been central to peace talks but has recently been sidelined by both President Trump and Kim Jong-Un. And whilst left-wing and pro North Korean parties are banned in the South, there are significant differences between the parties which will be a major factor in voters’ minds.

Proposed changes to the voting system would mean the small PR element changing from a parallel to a compensatory system, favouring smaller parties.

Polls suggest that the Democratic Party is well ahead of its main conservative opponents the Liberty Korea Party but effort to game the new voting system could leave the outcome in the balance.

Serbia, Parliament (April)

North Macedonia and Albania may have been seen as being at the front of the queue for EU accession, but Serbia has also been in the frame for membership for a number of years. And for the largest state in the former Yugoslavia, this would represent a significant departure from historic ties to Russia which seeks to maintain at least one friendly presence in the Balkans.

The major hindrance to western integration is the continued failure to establish common ground with Kosovo. Talks of a land-swap to settle a border dispute between the two were effectively quashed by Angela Merkel who saw this as a dangerous precedent for other countries. 

The current government is led by the pro-Western Ana Brnabić but previous elections have been criticised for the misuse of state resources and the lack of media independence and there is a proposed boycott by a number of opposition parties and groups. With decisions on Kosovo and western-oriented reforms likely to hit the popularity of the SNS government, it is possible that the coming election might be more competitive than assumed.

Belarus, President (August)

Few people will predict anything other than comfortable re-election for President Lukashanka but this election will be more notable for the tone than the outcome. Belarus has sought to maintain a balance between historic and economic ties to Russia whilst trying to avoid being perceived as a puppet of the Kremlin.

One of the potential routes for Vladimir Putin to remain in power after his second (and officially final) term in office comes to an end in 2024 is said to be a formal union with Belarus. This seems unlikely, but tax, currency and other financial ties remain under discussion. At the same time, the West, while being careful not to undermine Lukashenka by getting too close, will keep pressing for reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty.

Last year’s parliamentary elections saw the removal of the only two opposition law-makers from Parliament in what was seen as a retrograde step. Will this contest shed any light on likely succession-planning?

Georgia, Parliament (October)

Electoral reform is not the usual issue to cause mass protests but such is the case in Georgia where a pledge to implement a more proportional system appears to have been abandoned. The state remains heavily dependent on Russia despite the continuing ‘frozen’ conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia which the Kremlin recognises as breakaway states but Georgia (and most of the world) does not.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has seen almost half of its support drain away according to the most recent opinion polls, but the main opposition groups have also lost ground. Such fragmentation, as well as possible boycotts, make the elections unpredictable.

Egypt, Parliament and Senate (November)

Egypt’s flirtation with more genuine democracy resulted in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, President el-Sisi has received significant support from the rest of the world as a bastion against terrorism and he has been able to limit popular expression in the country and put state organs in charge of much of the poll. The removal of the powers of the General Intelligence Directorate to create and approve candidate lists might have been seen as a progressive step, but their role has been taken by the National Security Agency instead. Prominent opposition figures have been arrested but there are reports that the Coalition of Hope, a moderate opposition group, may be about to contest the elections.

Myanmar, Parliament (November)

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, for many years the symbol of opposition to military rule in Myanmar, has lost much of her lustre around the world as she has sought to defend what is seen as possible genocide against the Rohinga people in the west of the country and failed to overturn military dominance – the armed forces still has reserved seats in the parliament which makes fundamental change unlikely. 

How the people will react when given the chance to vote – and how free the military allows the elections to be – will be at issue in this contest. 

Venezuela, National Assembly (December)

The constitutional crisis in Venezuela – with two presidents claiming legitimacy and being backed by different countries – continues. The parliament remians the main opposition to President Nicolas Maduro whilst the Constituent Assembly, extablished to write a new constitution, are his main backers. Officially the constituent assembly will lose its mandate shortly after the parliamentary elections. However the outcome of the vote is unlikely to satisfy both sides and the battle for legitimacy will almost certainly continue.

Moldova, President (date unknown)

Moldova faces a Presidential election less than a year after the unlikely coalition government of pro-Western technocrats and pro-Russian socialists fell apart. That deal was done in order to oust the the Democratic Party of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc which was widely perceived to be corrupt. However there has been little time to complete reforms and the coming presidential poll will probably see a contest between incumbent Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party and former Prime Minister Pavel Filip who seems likely to receive the Democratic Party nomination.

Reading List – 18th November 2019

In a opinion piece in the New York Times, Daniel Kreiss and Matt Perault (the latter of whom is former public policy director at Facebook) offer options for reforming the elections landscape of social media.

 

For anyone who wants to know more about Iran and how the regime there has changed its global outlook and ambitions, this is a good read.

 

Dr Georges Fahmi of Chatham House examines how protesters across the region have adapted their tactics after the experiences of the Arab Spring. He sets out five lessons for those wnating to overthrow the system in their country, notably that it is not all about a rush to replace unpopular leaders through fresh elections – changing the rules and socio-economic structure of society is vital too.

 

This last recommendation is a listen rather than a read. Brookings President John Allen on why autocrats are rising and what to do about it. Defenders of an international liberal rules-based order need to take action to preserve their vision.