Iran and Russia’s campaign to get Corbyn into No 10

We look at how Russia and Iran are using social media to mess with our democracy, and we consider how the response to rising hate crime should be reinforcing a collective British identity


Twitter has published an archive of over 10 million posts originating from just a few thousand anonymous Russian and Iranian accounts, which included attempts to promote Jeremy Corbyn to UK audiences by disparaging British Jews’ fears about antisemitism.

Over a five-year period, more than nine million tweets were linked back to “3,841 accounts believed to be connected to the Russian Internet Research Agency”, according to Twitter, while over a million tweets were traced to “770 accounts believed to originate in Iran”.

Messages from Iranian accounts such as the now-defunct “VoiceofQuds” included tweets such as “Jeremy Corbyn poses a threat but NOT to Britain’s #Jews rather, what he stands for is a direct threat to #IsraelLobby ideological & economic interests #JeremyCorbyn4PM #GroupPalestine.”

Support for Mr Corbyn also came through tweets or retweets such as “Zionist Inquisition in Full Cry Their quarry: anti-racist Labour leader #JeremyCorbyn. Their weapons: antisemitism smears. Their purpose: to oust Corbyn and replace him with a compliant pro-Israel stooge.”

The accounts also tweeted links to posts from “The British Left”, an Iranian-run Facebook page, with pro-Corbyn messages such as “Corbyn urges PM to face reality, take action and save the NHS”, and “Jeremy Corbyn attacks government’s relentless police cuts.”

The Twitter accounts — some with fake biographies, others with usernames made up of random numbers and letters — also promoted the general narrative of the Iranian government, condemning its biggest regional opponents, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The accounts pushed claims that Israel was fighting and supporting enemies of the Assad regime in Syria. Tweets included a “news story” that said: “An Israeli Mossad officer working for the Al-Nusra Front assassinated in Brussels”, and a claim that “Commander of the UAE Armed Forces implies Arab countries must support Isis and Israel to oust Assad.”

There were a number of links to AWD News, a pro-Iranian website which has been identified as a fake news site by a number of fact-checking organisations.

In 2016, a false story claiming that Israel’s foreign minister had threatened to carry out a nuclear attack on Pakistan if the country sent troops to Syria led to Pakistan’s Defence Minister warning Israel that “Pakistan is a nuclear state too.”

AWD “stories” promoted by the tweets included the claim that an Israeli minister said that “Jesus wanted to alter the ‘ Jewishness’ of Israel and he was condemned to death.”

Meanwhile, in April the Sunday Times reported that Russian social media accounts had engaged in “an orchestrated attempt to propel Corbyn into Downing Street by bombarding the public with positive messages in support of Labour… [and] disseminated a deluge of negative propaganda against Labour’s main rival, the Conservatives. Comments such as “The Tories are literally killing our children” were retweeted by mechanised Russian accounts using fake English-sounding women’s names.

Professor Oleksandr Talavera, a Swansea University economist who worked on the Sunday Times investigation, suggested the agenda had not changed: “If you look at Russia Today’s current ranking of top ‘Russiaphobes’, you find Theresa May but you don’t find Corbyn.”

The binary political system in the UK, he added, made it easier for the Kremlin to influence voters on social media. “When you have two options — Corbyn and May — one can be made to dominate the other one. So obviously you try to support the one that is more favourable to you.”

In August the JC reported that Facebook had shut down 650 pages, many in the UK, covertly linked to a network called “Liberty Front Press”, which was traced back to Iranian state media. “The British Left” and the “Patriotic Palestinian Front” were among the pages closed down.

FireEye, an American cyber security company, was behind the identification of a large part of this network. The firm identified “multiple Twitter accounts… aimed at audiences in the US, UK, Latin America, and the Middle East, leveraging a network of inauthentic news sites and clusters of associated accounts across multiple social media platforms to promote political narratives in line with Iranian interests. These narratives include anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes.”

The Atlantic Council, an American think tank which specialises in analysing such social media data, identified key differences between the Russian and Iranian social media operations, saying that while the Russians sought to promote generalised chaos, “the Iranian operation focused on using Twitter accounts  —  usually masquerading as news outlets or individuals  —  to attract potential audiences towards websites which posted pro-Iranian government messaging”.

The Iranians were, according to the Atlantic Council, also far less successful, at least on Twitter, where attempts often focused on “ tweeting the same posts to individual influencers hundreds of times over — it was not especially effective, with most posts scoring under a dozen engagements.

“Few of the accounts showed distinctive personalities: they largely shared online articles. As such, they were a poor fit for Twitter, where personal comment tends to resonate more strongly than website shares.”


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