Twitter has removed 4,779 accounts connected to the Iranian government for using fake personas, spreading misinformation and manipulating the platform, all of which violate Twitter’s rules. The company believes that the accounts are associated with, or directly backed by, the Iranian government. In addition, the company removed 4 Russian accounts, 130 Spanish accounts, and 33 Venezuelan accounts for the same reasons. This is the latest incident of Twitter cracking down on violative accounts connected to state-backed actors. Twitter said its aim is “to differentiate between coordinated manipulative behaviour and legitimate speech from individuals and political parties”.

For privacy reasons, Twitter discloses only those data sets that it is able to reliably associate with state-affiliated actors. The company does not reveal information about individuals or accounts not affiliated with a state actor.

Removal of Iranian accounts

The 4,779 accounts that Twitter removed originated in Iran and behaved in three different ways:

  1. Platform manipulation (1,666 accounts): These originated in Iran and cumulatively tweeted nearly 2 million times. They engaged in platform manipulation in contravention of Twitter’s rules as they tweeted global news content “often with an angle that benefited the diplomatic and geostrategic views of the Iranian state”.
  2. Engaging in discussions related to Israel specifically (248 accounts)
  3. Fake accounts (2,885 accounts): These accounts used false personas to target conversations about political and social issues in Iran and globally. Yoel Roth, the head of site integrity at Twitter, had tweeted about these accounts last month. He had said that several of these accounts falsely represented themselves as journalists based in the US.

Accounts from Russia, Spain, Venezuela also removed

  • Russia: 4 accounts that were connected to the “propaganda effort by a Russian government-linked organisation known as the Internet Research Agency” were also removed as a result of increased information sharing between industry peers and law enforcement.
  • Spain: 130 fake accounts that originated in Spain were suspended as they were directly associated with the Catalan independence movement, specifically with the Spanish political party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. These fake accounts were spreading content about the Catalan Referendum with the intent to influence the conversation in politically advantageous ways.
  • Venezuela: 33 accounts that originated within Venezuela were suspended for engaging in platform manipulation targeted outside the country. These 33 accounts are directly connected to the previous group of 764 accounts (that had been suspended in January). Initially, Twitter thought that they were associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency, but further analysis suggested that ‘they were operated by a commercial entity originating in Venezuela’.

Study of Russia data revealed ‘professional’ misinformation campaign

In October 2018, Twitter had released a massive data set, which included nearly 3,900 suspended accounts and 10 million tweets linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. Cybersecurity firm Symantec studied that data and earlier this month released a report that said Russia’s disinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, often believed to be the work of trolls, was bigger, better coordinated, and far more effective than previously thought. The study found that the average gap between account creation and first tweet was 177 days. The most retweeted account got 6 million retweets, and fewer than 2,000 of those came from within the IRA-linked network of accounts. The accounts then remained active for an average of 429 days, well into August 2016, when almost all stopped tweeting.

A complete archive of content and tweets that Twitter has removed for violating its rules is available at the company’s Election Integrity Hub.