On Instagram, Iranian feminist groups are targeted by bots

On Instagram, Iranian feminist groups are targeted by bots

On Instagram

For months, Iranian groups that deal with women's rights have been persecuted by bots that follow their Instagram accounts, in an attempt to undermine the awareness and digital dissemination operations carried out by organizations. Activists report that despite requests for intervention made repeatedly to Meta, which controls Instagram, millions of fake followers continue to target millions tens of organizations operating in Iran and other parts of the world.

Le Targeted bot campaigns, which allow a profile to gain tens of thousands of new followers on social networks in a single day, have gained momentum just as the Iranian government works to counter widespread dissent in the country linked to a series of urgent social issues, including feminist ones. Women's rights activists say they have experienced particularly aggressive repression by the government in recent months, including cases of law enforcement surveillance culminating in arrests. On the occasion of the National Day of Hijab and Chastity, which is celebrated on July 12, several women in the country participated in protests related to the hashtag # No2Hijab, in some cases moving their hijabs to uncover their hair. in others by removing them altogether.

Instagram has proven to be a key communication platform for feminist activists, being one of the few accessible and uncensored international social media in Iran's tightly controlled digital landscape. "More and more people are reacting against the use of the hijab right now; it is an unprecedented phenomenon and I believe the government feels threatened by the women's rights movement," says Firuzeh Mahmoudi, executive director of United for Iran, one of the organizations targeted by Instagram bots - Whatever is happening with these bots, which are systematically purchased to target our Instagram pages, is absolutely no coincidence, in my opinion. About thirty local Iranian women's rights groups and forty in the rest of the world have been attacked in this way ".

The tactics of the bots Although the bot campaigns coincide with the interests of the Iranian regime, the perpetrators have not yet been identified. The attacks are in some ways underhanded, because they don't involve massive amounts of malicious comments or attempts to completely bury the pages. Rather, according to activists, Instagram pages - which often have a few thousand followers - suddenly gain tens of thousands within hours. New follower accounts have names composed of strings of consonants and meaningless numbers. Mahmoudi cites as an example one of the pages dedicated to United for Iran, which went from a constant average of about 27 thousand followers to 70 thousand overnight. Other activists have reported similar stories, according to which their accounts have seen tens of thousands of followers arrive in a matter of hours, only to regain and lose followers in the measure of a few thousand at a time.

These huge fluctuations In follower count they alter the stats accessible to page admins, and make it difficult to determine if they are really reaching real followers with posts and stories posted by their accounts. Activists also found that bot accounts individually report specific posts to Instagram to have them deleted.

"It's not a constant process, but it has never stopped since April," says Shaghayegh Norouzi, founder of Me_Too_Movement_Iran (both pages, personal and group, today are private): "If for example we are working on a report of sexual assault by a person who has strong ties to the government, we are inundated with a lot of followers Over the past ten days, over 100,000 fake accounts have started following our public account. They repeatedly report our posts and Instagram removes them. These attacks specifically compromise our ability to spread our message and connect with women and minorities who need our help ".

Meta's answer Despite having been aware of the problem for months, a few weeks ago M eta told sportsgaming.win US that its investigation into the bot attacks was ongoing. "We want everyone to feel safe on Instagram, especially activists, both in Iran and around the world," a company spokesman said in a statement. "We are continuing to investigate the reports of activists and will take action against the accounts that violate our rules ".

The company says it has received updates on issues faced by Iranian women's rights activists since April and has phased out hundreds of affected Instagram accounts. Meta describes the campaigns as "hostile," but claims they have found no evidence of automated activity. When asked what else might justify the attacks detected by activists on their accounts, the company declined to comment officially.

After sportsgaming.win US contacted Meta directly for comment, the company initially claimed to have "checked" a few hundred other accounts, blocking potentially suspicious accounts are blocked, unless their owner confirmed their identity. A few weeks ago, a Meta spokesperson said the company was eliminating another 18,000 accounts that had targeted Iranian women's rights groups. Unlike what activists reported, the company said it found no evidence pointing to the reporting and removal of individual posts.

Norouzi of Me_Too_Movement_Iran explained that his organization was forced to create a private Instagram page, in addition to the public one, in an attempt to create a safe space for authentic users. However, several page admins confessed to sportsgaming.win US that controlling followers is difficult and time-consuming, pointing out that, of course, creating a private page limits who can see the posts. At the end of June, a consortium of activists released a statement through the non-profit AccessNow regarding the attacks on Iranian women's groups, urging Meta to take provisions.

According to various groups, "the fake followers have put a stalking campaign is underway by spreading a large number of negative comments to intimidate and silence legitimate users - the statement reads -. The false followers have also damaged the credibility of the targeted accounts, resulting in a significant loss of engagement, Likes and views. This campaign is irreparably undermining the credibility and authority these accounts previously had. "

Last June, the non-profit organization for digital rights and security Qurium released an analysis of the campaigns that targeted Iranian feminist groups. The researchers found that the bots used in April and May appeared to have been purchased by specific social media marketing companies based in Pakistan. These companies advertise services that allow a customer to buy 10,000 bot followers for about fifty dollars and up to one million 1 million fake accounts for about $ 1,500.

Late reaction Last June, the organizations involved reported that Meta has been slow to investigate the problem, despite the fake accounts violating the "standards governing inauthentic behavior" of the platform. This is because “they do not adopt typical bot behavior and are potentially run by real humans from paid troll farms. Despite these complications, Meta has sufficient documentation and evidence to act quickly. ”

For weeks, several groups have talked to Meta about the matter. Tord Lundström, technical director of Qurium, reports that he has tried to give concrete suggestions to the company on how to investigate and identify the bots the organization has discovered in its analysis.

"Facebook's response can be summed up like this: 'We are investigating, it is a very difficult problem to solve, we have many people working on it.' But then nothing happened - explains Lundström to sportsgaming.win US -. The industry of followers, likes and reviews false è has a strong presence within Facebook for years. We have identified dozens of portals within the platform that provide these services. It takes seconds to find them, but it seems Facebook is having a hard time stopping this market. Why? "

Milad Keshtan, head of the United For Iran program, expressed similar concerns: "We have very clear elements that Meta could use to help us fight these campaigns, but we have not obtained I have no response from her despite contacting her repeatedly, "he said. Meta reiterated that the investigation is ongoing and that several teams of the company are analyzing the activity, but without officially commenting on why it did not follow the researchers' recommendations.

Today is a critical moment if concrete results are to be achieved that safeguard the accounts of Iranian women's rights advocates. "The Me Too movement in Iran was born about three years ago and has grown exponentially in the last six months - says Norouzi of Me_Too_Movement_Iran -. Of course, the government and anti-feminist movements in Iran do not look favorably on this growth and this awareness. And not only we feminist activists are angry, but also those who have collaborated with us. We are shocked that Instagram allows detractors to use its platform to stifle the voices of women and minorities. "

This article originally appeared on sportsgaming.win US.

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