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Beware fake friends

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Facebook and Twitter recently announced that a network of suspicious accounts, which appeared to originate in Iran, had been taken down.

Getty Images/GERARD JULIEN Enlarge

It’s not just the Russians we need to worry about.

Plenty of other countries are peddling misinformation via social networks in the United States.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter all have clamped down on accounts linked to an Iranian-backed disinformation campaign.

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Google announced it recently discovered 39 YouTube channels, half a dozen blogs and 13 Google+ accounts linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Meanwhile, Facebook said it has discovered fake users linked to the same Iranian campaign that attracted more than a million followers. Not to be left out, Twitter then suspended nearly 300 user accounts connected with those fake Facebook users.

The cyber-security firm FireEye alerted the American companies to the issue in July, linking the fake accounts to an Iranian state-backed campaign to spread propaganda in the United States to unsuspecting social media audiences.

Rather than trying to influence elections directly, an analysis of the fake accounts’ content showed that the Iranian campaign was aimed at spreading messages that were pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli and anti-Saudi. The accounts also posted content that supported the Iranian nuclear deal and other policies that favored Iran.

The campaign targeted users in the United States, Britain, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Disconcerting as it was to imagine Russian disinformation lurking in our social media feeds, now we have to be on guard for Iranian propaganda too? Yes, experts say. Also, they warn, disinformation from China and any other foreign power that may want to influence American public opinion.

Social media infiltration is a cheap, easy, low-risk strategy for anyone who wants to stoke outrage.

This is America’s enemies using our right to free speech against us. In many cases, such as the Russian efforts, they do not even care about pushing a particular agenda. They just want to distract us and divide us.

The good news, such as it is, is that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are getting quicker at discovering and shutting down such accounts.

It’s no coincidence that the countries that seem most intent on using platforms for free expression for these purposes are countries that deny that right to their own citizens.

So what’s a social media user to do? It’s time to get savvy and keep your guard up.

Question the origins and the motivations of the social media you’re consuming. Misinformation from forces trying to undermine American democracy is lurking among back-to-school photos and community block party invitations.

Because social media platforms make it so easy for foes to spread disinformation, there likely is not much we can do to stop them entirely. But at least we can stop taking their bait.

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