Website Nile Net Online promises Egyptians “true news” from its offices in the heart of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, “to expand the scope of freedom of expression in the Arab world.”
Its views on America do not chime with those of Egypt’s state media, which celebrate Donald Trump’s warm relations with Cairo. In one recent article, Nile Net Online derided the American president as a “low-level theater actor” who “turned America into a laughing stock” after he attacked Iran in a speech at the United Nations.
Until recently, Nile Net Online had more than 115,000 page-followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But its contact telephone numbers, including one listed as 0123456789, don’t work. A Facebook map showing its location dropped a pin onto the middle of the street, rather than any building. And regulars at the square, including a newspaper stallholder and a policeman, say they have never heard of the website.
The reason: Nile Net Online is part of an influence operation based in Tehran.
It’s one of more than 70 websites found by Reuters which push Iranian propaganda to 15 countries, in an operation that cybersecurity experts, social media firms and journalists are only starting to uncover. The sites found by Reuters are visited by more than half a million people a month, and have been promoted by social media accounts with more than a million followers.
The sites underline how political actors worldwide are increasingly circulating distorted or false information online to influence public opinion. The discoveries follow allegations that Russian disinformation campaigns have swayed voters in the United States and Europe. Advisers to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, and the army in Myanmar, are also among those using social media to distribute propaganda and attack their enemies. Moscow has denied the charges; Riyadh and Yangon have not commented.
Former CIA director John Brennan told Reuters that “countries around the globe” are now using such information warfare tactics.
“The Iranians are sophisticated cyber players,” he said of the Iranian campaign. “There are elements of the Iranian intelligence services that are rather capable in terms of operating (online).”
Traced by building on research from cybersecurity firms FireEye and ClearSky, the sites in the campaign have been active at different times since 2012. They look like normal news and media outlets, but only a couple disclose any Iranian ties.
Reuters could not determine whether the Iranian regime is behind the sites; Iranian officials in Tehran and London did not reply to questions.
But all the sites are linked to Iran in one of two ways. Some carry stories, video and cartoons supplied by an online agency called the International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM), which says on its website it is headquartered in Tehran. Some have shared online registration details with IUVM, such as addresses and phone numbers. Twenty-one of the websites do both.
Emails sent to IUVM bounced back and telephone numbers the agency gave in web registration records did not work. Documents available on the main IUVM website say its objectives include “confronting with remarkable arrogance, western governments and Zionism front activities.”
Nile Net Online did not respond to questions sent to the email address on its website. Its operators, as well as those of the other websites identified by Reuters, could not be located. Previous owners identified in historical registration records could not be reached. The Egyptian government did not respond to requests for comment.
Some of the sites in the Iranian operation were first exposed in August by companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google’s parent, Alphabet, after FireEye found them. The social media companies have closed hundreds of accounts that promoted the sites or pushed Iranian messaging. Facebook said last month it had taken down 82 pages, groups and accounts linked to the Iranian campaign; these had gathered more than one million followers in the United States and Britain.
But the sites uncovered by Reuters have a much wider scope. They have published in 16 different languages, from Azerbaijani to Urdu, targeting Internet users in less-developed countries. That they reached readers in tightly controlled societies such as Egypt, which has blocked hundreds of news websites since 2017, highlights the campaign’s reach.
The Iranian sites include:
A news site called Another Western Dawn which says its focus is on “unspoken truth.” It fooled the Pakistani defence minister into issuing a nuclear threat against Israel.
Ten outlets targeting readers in Yemen, where Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia have been fighting a proxy conflict since war broke out in 2015;
• A media outlet offering daily news and satirical cartoons in Sudan. Reuters could not reach any of its staff;
• A website called Realnie Novosti, or “Real News,” for Russian readers. It offers a downloadable mobile phone app but its operator could not be traced.
The news on the sites is not all fake. Authentic stories sit alongside pirated cartoons, as well as speeches from Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The sites clearly support the Iranian regime and amplify antagonism to countries opposed to Tehran - particularly Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Nile Net’s “laughing stock” piece was copied from an Iranian state TV network article published earlier the same day.
Some of the sites are slapdash. The self-styled, misspelled “Yemen Press Agency” carries a running update of Saudi “crimes against Yemenis during the past 24 hours.” Emails sent to the agency’s listed contact, Arafat Shoroh, bounced back. The agency’s address and phone number led to a hotel in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, whose staff said they had never heard of Shoroh.
The identity or location of the past owners of some of the websites is visible in historical Internet registration records: 17 of 71 sites have in the past listed their locations as Iran or Tehran, or given an Iranian telephone or fax number. But who owns them now is often hidden, and none of the Iranian-linked operators could be reached.
More than 50 of the sites use American web service providers Cloudflare and OnlineNIC - firms that provide website owners with tools to shield themselves from spam and hackers. Frequently, such services also effectively conceal who owns the sites or where they are hosted. The companies declined to tell Reuters who operates the sites.
Under US law, hosting and web services companies are not generally liable for the content of sites they serve, said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. Still, since 2014, US sanctions on Iran have banned “the exportation or re-exportation, directly or indirectly, of web-hosting services that are for commercial endeavors or of domain name registration services.”