As the novel coronavirus pandemic has swept across the world over the last few weeks, a pro-Iranian influence operation has spread disinformation over social media suggesting that the US government created the disease, according to a new report from Graphika.
The International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM) “is a prolific operator” that hosts and creates pro-Iran and pro-Palestinian video reports, news articles, and memes.
According to Graphika, this content is linked out over social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In recent weeks, the disinformation operation has pivoted toward blaming the US for creating the coronavirus and critiquing its sanctions against Iran, alleging that they have hurt the nation’s ability to combat the disease.
The IUVM began posting about the virus in late February, around the same time that Iran confirmed its first death related to COVID-19. In its following posts, the disinformation group started posting articles claiming that “it is no coincidence that the virus selectively goes to countries that are considered enemies of the United States, namely China, Iran, some EU countries, including Italy,” according to the report, suggesting the virus was a US creation in order to remain a dominant global power.
“The IUVM operation is significant and manned by a well-resourced and persistent actor, but its effectiveness should not be overstated,” the report said.
Still, the IUVM’s accounts have only accrued around 5,000 followers across platforms. Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Platforms like Facebook have worked with Graphika and other researchers in the past to remove coordinated disinformation operations like IUVM’s before they’re able to establish a larger audience.
Facebook first removed the IUVM network two years ago with the help of FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, and it has continued to disrupt the group when posts and accounts pop up. “Graphika’s report is a good example of how industry and researchers work together to stop influence operations,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Verge. Twitter also permanently suspended the accounts highlighted in Graphika’s report, according to the company.
Iran has been one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic and was an early epicenter of the disease. According to The New York Times on Wednesday, Iran’s government confirmed that around 4,700 people out of the 76,389 confirmed cases have died as a result of the disease.
Graphika’s report comes just a day after the Defense Department publicly rebuked foreign governments, including Russia, China, and Iran, for capitalizing on the pandemic by sewing anti-American sentiment.
“These are messages that are endangering global health because they’re undermining the efforts of governments, of health agencies and of organizations that are in charge of disseminating accurate information about the virus to the public,” Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Updated 4/15/20 at 12:00PM ET: Included additional information from Twitter.