U.S. social media firms say they are removing violent content faster

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Major U.S. social media firms told a Senate panel Wednesday they are doing more to prevent to remove violent or extremist content from online platforms in the wake of several high-profile incidents, focusing on using more technological tools to act faster.

Critics say too many violent videos or posts that back extremist groups supporting terrorism are not immediately removed from social media websites.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said social media firms need to do more to prevent violent content.

Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, told the Senate Commerce Committee its software detection systems have “reduced the average time it takes for our AI to find a violation on Facebook Live to 12 seconds, a 90% reduction in our average detection time from a few months ago.”

In May, Facebook Inc said it would temporarily block users who break its rules from broadcasting live video. That followed an international outcry after a gunman killed 51 people in New Zealand and streamed the attack live on his page.

Bickert said Facebook asked law enforcement agencies to help it access “videos that could be helpful training tools” to improve its machine learning to detect violent videos.

Earlier this month, the owner of 8chan, an online message board linked to several recent mass shootings, gave a deposition on Capitol Hill after police in Texas said they were “reasonably confident” the man who shot and killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

Facebook banned links to violent content that appeared on 8chan.

Twitter Inc public policy director Nick Pickles said the website suspended more than 1.5 million accounts for terrorism promotion violations between August 2015 and the end of 2018 with “more than 90% of these accounts are suspended through our proactive measures.”

Twitter was asked by Senator Rick Scott why the site allows Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to have an account given what he said were a series of brazen human rights violations. “If we remove that person’s account it will not change facts on the ground,” Pickles said, who added that Maduro’s account has not broken Twitter’s rules.

Alphabet Inc unit Google’s global director of information policy, Derek Slater, said the answer is “a combination of technology and people. Technology can get better and better at identifying patterns. People can help deal with the right nuances.”

Of 9 million videos removed in a three-month period this year by YouTube, 87% were flagged by artificial intelligence.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

U.S. social media firms to testify on violent, extremist online content

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc will testify next week before a U.S. Senate panel on efforts by social media firms to remove violent content from online platforms, the panel said in a statement on Wednesday.

The Sept. 18 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee follows growing concern in Congress about the use of social media by people committing mass shootings and other violent acts. Last week, the owner of 8chan, an online message board linked to several recent mass shootings, gave a deposition on Capitol Hill.

The hearing “will examine the proliferation of extremism online and explore the effectiveness of industry efforts to remove violent content from online platforms. Witnesses will discuss how technology companies are working with law enforcement when violent or threatening content is identified and the processes for removal of such content,” the committee said.

Facebook’s head of global policy management Monika Bickert, Twitter public policy director Nick Pickles and Google’s global director of information policy Derek Slater are due to testify.

Facebook and Google both confirmed they will participate but declined to comment further. Twitter did not immediately comment.

In May, Facebook said it would temporarily block users who break its rules from broadcasting live video. That followed an international outcry after a gunman killed 51 people in New Zealand and streamed the attack live on his page.

Facebook said it was introducing a “one-strike” policy for use of Facebook Live, a service which lets users broadcast live video. Those who broke the company’s most serious rules anywhere on its site would have their access to make live broadcasts temporarily restricted.

Facebook has come under intense scrutiny in recent years over hate speech, privacy lapses and its dominant market position in social media. The company is trying to address those concerns while averting more strenuous action from regulators.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Tom Brown)

Twitter, Facebook accuse China of using fake accounts to undermine Hong Kong protests

FILE PHOTO: A 3-D printed Facebook logo is seen in front of displayed binary code in this illustration picture, June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Katie Paul and Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) – Twitter Inc and Facebook Inc said on Monday they had dismantled a state-backed information operation originating in mainland China that sought to undermine protests in Hong Kong.

Twitter said it suspended 936 accounts and the operations appeared to be a coordinated state-backed effort originating in China. It said these accounts were just the most active portions of this campaign and that a “larger, spammy network” of approximately 200,000 accounts had been proactively suspended before they were substantially active.

Facebook said it had removed accounts and pages from a small network after a tip from Twitter. It said that its investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.

Social media companies are under pressure to stem illicit political influence campaigns online ahead of the U.S. election in November 2020. A 22-month U.S. investigation concluded Russia interfered in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” in the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.

The Chinese embassy in Washington and the U.S. State Department were not immediately available to comment.

The Hong Kong protests, which have presented one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012, began in June as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts. They have since swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Twitter in a blog post said the accounts undermined the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement in Hong Kong.

Examples of posts provided by Twitter included a tweet from a user with photos of protesters storming Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, which asked: “Are these people who smashed the Legco crazy or taking benefits from the bad guys? It’s a complete violent behavior, we don’t want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!”

In examples provided by Facebook, one post called the protesters “Hong Kong cockroaches” and claimed that they “refused to show their faces.”

In a separate statement, Twitter said it was updating its advertising policy and would not accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities going forward.

Alphabet Inc’s YouTube video service told Reuters in June that state-owned media companies maintained the same privileges as any other user, including the ability to run ads in accordance with its rules. YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday on whether it had detected inauthentic content related to protests in Hong Kong.

(Reporting by Katie Paul in Aspen, Colorado, and Elizabeth Culliford in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Australia says no timeframe to decide case of Saudi teen asylum seeker

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a news conference at Australian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday there was no timeframe for the assessment of the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her.

The U.N. refugee agency has referred Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement.

“Following the UNHCR referrals, Australia is now going through the steps we are required to do in relation to the assessment process and then when that is complete an announcement will be made,” Payne said in Bangkok, after arriving on a visit arranged before Qunun sought asylum.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

Qunun is staying in a Bangkok hotel under the care of the UNHCR.

She arrived in Thailand on Saturday and was initially denied entry. She had been intending to fly from there to Australia to seek asylum.

She soon started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait” and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a campaign sprang up, spread by a loose network of online activists, and the world watched as she refused to board a flight to Saudi Arabia and barricade herself inside a transit lounge hotel room.

On Monday evening, Thai authorities allowed her to enter the country.

Her case has drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

It comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

‘AUSTRALIA’S CONCERN’

Payne’s visit has also thrown a spotlight on another refugee case, involving Bahrain footballer Hakeem AlAraibi, who has refugee status in Australia but was arrested at Bangkok airport last year after arriving for his honeymoon.

Bahrain made a request to have him extradited and he is in jail, waiting for a hearing to decide his case.

Payne withheld talks with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who is also justice minister, and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

“I also appreciate the opportunity … to raise Australia’s concern about the detention of and possible return of Mr Hakeem AlAraibi to Bahrain,” Payne told reporters after the meeting.

“The Thai government is aware of the importance of this matter to Australia.”

AlAraibi was convicted for vandalizing a police station in Bahrain and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia.

“He has denied all wrongdoing as accused by the Bahrain government,” Nadthasiri Bergman, AlAraibi’s lawyer in Thailand told Reuters.

“He would be put in danger if he is sent back to Bahrain.”

World football governing body FIFA says AlAraibi should be freed and allowed to return to Australia where he plays for Melbourne football club Pascoe Vale in the second tier of the Australian League.

Activists have called on Thai authorities to “show humanity” to AlAraibi in the same way that they did to Qunun.

(This version of the story adds dropped word ‘agency’ in paragraph 2)

(Additional report by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Robert Birsel)

#SaveRahaf: Activists’ lightning campaign made Saudi teen’s flight a global cause

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um

BANGKOK (Reuters) – On Sunday morning, a new Twitter account was created by an 18-year-old Saudi woman denied entry into Thailand as she fled from what she said was an abusive family.

The first message from Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Arabic, was at 3:20 a.m. Thai time (2020 GMT Saturday) and posted from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. It said: “I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in real danger if I am forced to return to Saudi Arabia.”

Within hours, a campaign sprung up on Twitter dubbed #SaveRahaf. Spread by a loose network of activists around the world, within 36 hours it prompted Thailand’s government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

Qunun was allowed to enter Thailand and on Tuesday was beginning the process of seeking asylum in a third country through the U.N. refugee agency.

“Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the international outcry.

Qunun’s family could not be reached to respond to her allegations of abuse. Reuters could not directly contact Qunun, but spoke to several confidants who described how the dramatic campaign unfolded across the world.

After her initial Tweet, Qunun posted nearly non-stop for five hours, saying she had been abused and threatened by her family.

Halfway around the world, retweets by Saudi Twitter users were noticed by Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Montreal who began translating and retweeting Qunun’s Arabic tweets at 4 a.m. Thailand time, even though she was initially unsure if the account was authentic.

“(I was) doing my best to get attention to her because I could not live with myself if she was real and I ignored it,” Eltahawy told Reuters in an e-mail.

BANGKOK, MONTREAL, SYDNEY

About two hours later – 6 a.m. Sunday morning in Thailand but mid-afternoon in Australia – a Sydney-based video journalist noticed and retweeted Eltahawy’s translated messages.

The journalist, Sophie McNeill of Australia Broadcast Corp., began tweeting back to Qunun, and later the two began privately corresponding by direct message.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday in Thailand – eight hours after Qunun began tweeting – Human Rights Watch’s Robertson, who is based in Bangkok, also began tweeting about the case.

He also contacted Qunun directly and she replied.

“She said very clearly that she has suffered both physical and psychological abuse. She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble,” Robertson told Reuters.

Renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, though the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

By early Sunday afternoon, Robertson had notified the U.N. refugee agency in Thailand and several foreign embassies about the unfolding case, and they began to contact Thai authorities.

BARRICADED DOOR

At around the same time, journalist McNeill decided to fly to Thailand and try to meet Qunun.

“I’d never spoken to her before,” she told Reuters. “For me, it was so important that this was documented, and I wanted to be there and witness it.”

While McNeill boarded a flight from Sydney to Bangkok, Qunun was holed up in an airport transit hotel and afraid she would be forced onto the next flight back to Kuwait. She continued tweeting and also corresponding with Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

At around 5 p.m. Sunday, she was taken out of her room by Thai officials but later allowed to return.

“She filmed these two people talking to her,” said Robertson. “They said to her very clearly that they will put her on the Kuwait Airways flight KU 412 leaving (Monday) at 11:15 a.m.”

By this time, global media outlets had picked up on the story and Thai immigration officials were confirming that Qunun was to be expelled on Monday morning.

At about 1 a.m. Monday morning, Qunun posted a video of herself pushing a table to barricade her hotel room door.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

THREATENING LANGUAGE

McNeill arrived in Thailand early on Monday and managed to join Qunun in her hotel room.

“When it became clear that she wasn’t going to leave, I decided it was important to stay and have someone documenting what was going on,” McNeill said.

Qunun refused to open the door when various officials came to escort her to the Kuwait Airways flight.

“We were inside the room and there were numerous people coming to the door … There were several Arabic speakers who came and were using threatening language to try and force her back on the plane,” McNeill recalled.

The flight to Kuwait City left without Qunun.

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn held a press conference at the airport for dozens of Thai and international media representatives gathered in the transit area.

After a day of insisting that Qunun must be sent back under Thai law, Surachate said she would not be immediately be expelled since she could be in danger and he would meet U.N. officials to discuss her case.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis arrived at the airport at about 5 p.m. on Monday to meet Thai officials and Qunun herself.

By about 7:30 p.m on Monday, Surachate told reporters Qunun would be allowed to enter Thailand and apply for asylum in a third country.

The UNHCR said on Tuesday that it would take time to process Qunun’s application, and its officials continued to interview her at an undisclosed location.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday denied on its Twitter account that its embassy in Thailand had asked for Qunun to be extradited, although Surachate had said the previous day the embassy had been in contact with Thai immigration before her arrival from Kuwait.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on Qunun’s case when contacted by Reuters on Monday and could not be reached on Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, the Thai immigration office released a video clip of its officials meeting Saudi diplomats to discuss the case.

“When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new site (account) and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day,” a Saudi official speaking in Arabic through a translator tells Thai officials in the video.

“I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than (taking) her passport,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Special Report: How Iran spreads disinformation around the world

FILE PHOTO: Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran

By Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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 government 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.

“UNSPOKEN TRUTH”

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 defense minister into issuing a nuclear threat against Israel; * Ten outlets targeting readers in Yemen, where Iran andU.S. ally Saudi Arabia have been fighting a proxy conflict since civil 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 Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The sites clearly support Iran’s government 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, Sana’a, 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 U.S 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, U.S. 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.”

Douglas Kramer, general counsel for Cloudflare, said the services it provides do not include web-hosting services. “We’ve looked at those various sanctions regimes, we are comfortable that we are not in violation,” he told Reuters.

A spokesman for OnlineNIC said none of the sites declared a connection to Iran in their registration details, and the company was in full compliance with U.S. sanctions and trade embargoes.

The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) declined to comment on whether it planned an investigation.

ANOTHER WESTERN DAWN

The Kremlin is widely seen as the superpower in modern information warfare. From what is known so far, Russia’s influence operation – which Moscow denies – dwarfs Iran’s. According to Twitter, nearly 4,000 accounts connected to the Russian campaign posted over 9 million tweets between 2013 and 2018, against over 1 million tweets from fewer than 1,000 accounts believed to originate in Iran.

Even though the Iranian operation is smaller, it has had impact on volatile topics. AWDnews – the site with the focus on “unspoken truth” – ran a false story in 2016 which prompted Pakistan’s defense minister to warn on Twitter he had the weapons to nuke Israel. He only found out that the hoax was part of an Iranian operation when contacted by Reuters.

“It was a learning experience,” said the deceived politician, 69-year-old Khawaja Asif, who left Pakistan’s government earlier this year. “But one can understand that these sorts of things happen because fake news has become something huge. It’s something which anyone is capable of now, which is very dangerous.”

Israeli officials did not respond to a request for comment.

AWDnews publishes in English, French, Spanish and German and, according to data from web analytics company SimilarWeb, receives around 12,000 unique visitors a month. Among others who shared stories from AWDnews and the other websites identified by Reuters were politicians in Britain, Jordan, India, and the Netherlands; human-rights activists; an Indian music composer and a Japanese rap star.

In August 2015, an official account for a European department of the World Health Organization (WHO) tweeted an AWDnews story. Annalisa Buoro, secretary for the WHO’s European Office for Investment for Health and Development, said the person running the department’s Twitter account at the time did not know the website was part of an Iranian campaign.

She said the tweet had gone out when the account had a relatively small following, limiting the damage, but “on the other hand, I am very concerned … because as a UN agency we have a huge responsibility.”

JOBS FOR WOMEN

FireEye, a U.S. cybersecurity firm, originally named six websites as part of the Iranian influence operation. Reuters examined those sites, and their content led to the Tehran-based International Union of Virtual Media.

IUVM is an array of 11 websites with names such as iuvmpress, iuvmapp and iuvmpixel. Together, they form a library of digital material, including mobile phone apps, items from Iranian state media and pictures, video clips and stories from elsewhere on the web, which support Tehran’s policies.

Tracking usage of IUVM content across the Internet led to sites which have used its material, registration details, or both. For instance, 22 of the sites have shared the same phone number, which does not work and has also been listed for IUVM. At least seven have used the same address, which belongs to a youth hostel in Berlin. Staff at the hostel told Reuters they had never heard of the sites in question. The site operators could not be reached to explain their links with IUVM.

Two sites even posted job advertisements for IUVM, inviting applications from women with “ability to work effectively and knowledge in dealing with social networks and (the) Internet.”

DEMOLISHED HOME

One of IUVM’s most popular users is a site called Sudan Today, which SimilarWeb data shows receives almost 150,000 unique visitors each month. On Facebook, it tells its 57,000 followers that it operates without political bias. Its 18,000 followers on Twitter have included the Italian Embassy in Sudan, and its work has been cited in a report by the Egyptian Electricity Ministry.

The office address registered for Sudan Today in 2016 covers a whole city district in north Khartoum, according to archived website registration details provided by WhoisAPI Inc and DomainTools LLC. The phone number listed in those records does not work.

Reuters could not trace staff members named on Sudan Today’s Facebook page. The five-star Corinthia hotel in central Khartoum, where the site says it hosted an anniversary party last year, told Reuters no such event took place. And an address listed on one of its social media accounts is a demolished home.

Sudan used to be an Iranian ally but has changed sides to align itself with Saudi Arabia, costing Tehran a foothold in the Horn of Africa just as it becomes more isolated by the West. In that environment, Iran sees itself as competing with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States for international support, and is taking the fight online, said Ariane Tabatabai, a senior associate and Iran expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Headlines on Sudan Today’s homepage include a daily round-up of stories from local newspapers and Ugandan soccer results. It also features reports on bread prices – which doubled in January after Khartoum eliminated subsidies, triggering demonstrations.

Ohad Zaidenberg, senior researcher at Israeli cybersecurity firm ClearSky, said this mixture of content provides the cover for narratives geared at influencing a target audience’s attitudes and perceptions.

The site also draws attention to Saudi Arabia’s military actions in Yemen. Since Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ended his allegiance with Iran he has sent troops and jets to join Saudi-led forces in the Yemeni conflict.

One cartoon from IUVM published by Sudan Today in August shows Donald Trump astride a military jet with an overflowing bag of dollar bills tucked under one arm. The jet is draped with traditional Saudi dress and shown dropping bombs on a bloodstained map of Yemen. The map is littered with children’s toys and shoes.

Turkish cartoonist Mikail Çiftçi drew the original. He told Reuters he did not give Sudan Today permission to use it.

Alnagi Albashra, a 28-year-old software developer in Khartoum, said he likes to read articles on Sudan Today in the evenings when waiting for his baby to fall asleep. But he and three other Sudan Today readers reached by Reuters had no idea who was behind the site.

“This is a big problem,” he said. “You can’t see that they are not in Sudan.”

Government officials in Khartoum, the White House, the Italian Embassy and the Egyptian Electricity Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

BACKBONE

It is unclear who globally is tasked with responding to online disinformation campaigns like Iran’s, or what if any action they should take, said David Conrad, chief technology officer at ICANN, a non-profit which helps manage global web addresses.

Social media accounts can be deleted in bulk by the firms that provide the platforms. But the Iranian campaign’s backbone of websites makes it harder to dismantle than social media because taking down a website often requires the cooperation of law enforcement, Internet service providers and web infrastructure companies.

Efforts by social media companies in the United States and Europe to tackle the campaign have had mixed results.

Shortly after being contacted by Reuters, Twitter suspended the accounts for Nile Net Online and Sudan Today. “Clear attribution is very difficult,” a spokeswoman said but added that the company would continue to update a public database of tweets and accounts linked to state-backed information operations when it had new information.

Google did not respond directly to questions about the websites found by Reuters. The company has said it identified and closed 99 accounts which it says are linked to Iranian state media. “We’ve invested in robust systems to identify influence operations launched by foreign governments,” a spokeswoman said.

Facebook said it was aware of the websites found by Reuters and had removed five more Facebook pages. But a spokesman said that based on Facebook user data, the company was not yet able to link all the websites’ accounts to the Iranian activity found earlier. “In the past several months, we have removed hundreds of Pages, Groups, and accounts linked to Iranian actors engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior. We continue to remove accounts across our services and in all relevant languages,” he said.

Accounts linked to the Iranian sites remain active online, especially in languages other than English. On Nov. 30, 16 of the Iranian sites were still posting daily updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube – including Sudan Today and Nile Net Online. Between them, the social media accounts had more than 700,000 followers.

(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla in Cairo, Erich Knecht and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin Nouri and Ryan McNeill in London; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

Facebook, Google to tackle spread of fake news, advisors want more

FILE PHOTO - Commuters walk past an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Facebook, Google, and other tech firms have agreed on a code of conduct to do more to tackle the spread of fake news, due to concerns it can influence elections, the European Commission said on Wednesday.

Intended to stave off more heavy-handed legislation, the voluntary code covers closer scrutiny of advertising on accounts and websites where fake news appears, and working with fact checkers to filter it out, the Commission said.

But a group of media advisors criticized the companies, also including Twitter and lobby groups for the advertising industry, for failing to present more concrete measures.

With EU parliamentary elections scheduled for May, Brussels is anxious to address the threat of foreign interference during campaigning. Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and Ukraine are also all due to hold national elections next year.

Russia has faced allegations – which it denies – of disseminating false information to influence the U.S. presidential election and Britain’s referendum on European Union membership in 2016, as well as Germany’s national election last year.

The Commission told the firms in April to draft a code of practice or face regulatory action over what it said was their failure to do enough to remove misleading or illegal content.

European Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said on Wednesday that Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla, and advertising groups – which she did not name – had responded with several measures.

“The industry is committing to a wide range of actions, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and …we welcome this,” she said in a statement.

The steps also include rejecting payment from sites that spread fake news, helping users understand why they have been targeted by specific ads, and distinguishing ads from editorial content.

But the advisory group criticized the code, saying the companies had not offered measurable objectives to monitor its implementation.

“The platforms, despite their best efforts, have not been able to deliver a code of practice within the accepted meaning of effective and accountable self-regulation,” the group said, giving no further details.

Its members include the Association of Commercial Television in Europe, the European Broadcasting Union, the European Federation of Journalists and International Fact-Checking Network, and several academics.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and John Stonestreet)

Exclusive: Iran-based political influence operation – bigger, persistent, global

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Instagram logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An apparent Iranian influence operation targeting internet users worldwide is significantly bigger than previously identified, Reuters has found, encompassing a sprawling network of anonymous websites and social media accounts in 11 different languages.

Facebook and other companies said last week that multiple social media accounts and websites were part of an Iranian project to covertly influence public opinion in other countries. A Reuters analysis has identified 10 more sites and dozens of social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

U.S.-based cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc and Israeli firm ClearSky reviewed Reuters’ findings and said technical indicators showed the web of newly-identified sites and social media accounts – called the International Union of Virtual Media, or IUVM – was a piece of the same campaign, parts of which were taken down last week by Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc.

IUVM pushes content from Iranian state media and other outlets aligned with the government in Tehran across the internet, often obscuring the original source of the information such as Iran’s PressTV, FARS news agency and al-Manar TV run by the Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

PressTV, FARS, al-Manar TV and representatives for the Iranian government did not respond to requests for comment. The Iranian mission to the United Nations last week dismissed accusations of an Iranian influence campaign as “ridiculous.”

The extended network of disinformation highlights how multiple state-affiliated groups are exploiting social media to manipulate users and further their geopolitical agendas, and how difficult it is for tech companies to guard against political interference on their platforms.

In July, a U.S. grand jury indicted 12 Russians whom prosecutors said were intelligence officers, on charges of hacking political groups in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. U.S. officials have said Russia, which has denied the allegations, could also attempt to disrupt congressional elections in November.

Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who has previously analyzed disinformation campaigns for Facebook, said the IUVM network displayed the extent and scale of the Iranian operation.

“It’s a large-scale amplifier for Iranian state messaging,” Nimmo said. “This shows how easy it is to run an influence operation online, even when the level of skill is low. The Iranian operation relied on quantity, not quality, but it stayed undetected for years.”

FURTHER INVESTIGATIONS

Facebook spokesman Jay Nancarrow said the company is still investigating accounts and pages linked to Iran and had taken more down on Tuesday.

“This is an ongoing investigation and we will continue to find out more,” he said. “We’re also glad to see that the information we and others shared last week has prompted additional attention on this kind of inauthentic behavior.”

Twitter referred to a statement it tweeted on Monday shortly after receiving a request for comment from Reuters. The statement said the company had removed a further 486 accounts for violating its terms of use since last week, bringing the total number of suspended accounts to 770.

“Fewer than 100 of the 770 suspended accounts claimed to be located in the U.S. and many of these were sharing divisive social commentary,” Twitter said.

Google declined to comment but took down the IUVM TV YouTube account after Reuters contacted the company with questions about it. A message on the page on Tuesday said the account had been “terminated for a violation of YouTube’s Terms of Service.”

IUVM did not respond to multiple emails or social media messages requesting comment.

The organization does not conceal its aims, however. Documents on the main IUVM website  said its headquarters are in Tehran and its objectives include “confronting with remarkable arrogance, western governments, and Zionism front activities.”

APP STORE AND SATIRICAL CARTOONS

IUVM uses its network of websites – including a YouTube channel, breaking news service, mobile phone app store, and a hub for satirical cartoons mocking Israel and Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia – to distribute content taken from Iranian state media and other outlets which support Tehran’s position on geopolitical issues.

Reuters recorded the IUVM network operating in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Russian, Hindi, Azerbaijani, Turkish and Spanish.

Much of the content is then reproduced by a range of alternative media sites, including some of those identified by FireEye last week as being run by Iran while purporting to be domestic American or British news outlets.

For example, an article run by in January by Liberty Front Press – one of the pseudo-U.S. news sites exposed by FireEye – reported on the battlefield gains made by the army of Iranian ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That article was sourced to IUVM but actually lifted from two FARS news agency stories.

FireEye analyst Lee Foster said iuvmpress.com, one of the biggest IUVM websites, was registered in January 2015 with the same email address used to register two sites already identified as being run by Iran. ClearSky said multiple IUVM sites were hosted on the same server as another website used in the Iranian operation.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs in LONDON, Christopher Bing in WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in LONDON; Editing by Damon Darlin and Grant McCool)

Social media companies accelerate removals of online hate speech

A man reads tweets on his phone in front of a displayed Twitter logo in Bordeaux, southwestern France, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Regis

By Julia Fioretti

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have accelerated removals of online hate speech in the face of a potential European Union crackdown.

The EU has gone as far as to threaten social media companies with new legislation unless they increase efforts to fight the proliferation of extremist content and hate speech on their platforms.

Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube signed a code of conduct with the EU in May 2016 to review most complaints within a 24-hour timeframe. Instagram and Google+ will also sign up to the code, the European Commission said.

The companies managed to review complaints within a day in 81 percent of cases during monitoring of a six-week period towards the end of last year, EU figures released on Friday show, compared with 51 percent in May 2017 when the Commission last examined compliance with the code of conduct.

On average, the companies removed 70 percent of the content flagged to them, up from 59.2 percent in May last year.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova has said that she does not want to see a 100 percent removal rate because that could impinge on free speech.

She has also said she is not in favor of legislating as Germany has done. A law providing for fines of up to 50 million euros ($61.4 million) for social media companies that do not remove hate speech quickly enough went into force in Germany this year.

Jourova said the results unveiled on Friday made it less likely that she would push for legislation on the removal of illegal hate speech.

‘NO FREE PASS’

“The fact that our collaborative approach on illegal hate speech brings good results does not mean I want to give a free pass to the tech giants,” she told a news conference.

Facebook reviewed complaints in less than 24 hours in 89.3 percent of cases, YouTube in 62.7 percent of cases and Twitter in 80.2 percent of cases.

“These latest results and the success of the code of conduct are further evidence that the Commission’s current self-regulatory approach is effective and the correct path forward.” said Stephen Turner, Twitter’s head of public policy.

Of the hate speech flagged to the companies, almost half of it was found on Facebook, the figures show, while 24 percent was on YouTube and 26 percent on Twitter.

The most common ground for hatred identified by the Commission was ethnic origin, followed by anti-Muslim hatred and xenophobia, including expressions of hatred against migrants and refugees.

Pressure from several European governments has prompted social media companies to step up efforts to tackle extremist online content, including through the use of artificial intelligence.

YouTube said it was training machine learning models to flag hateful content at scale.

“Over the last two years we’ve consistently improved our review and action times for this type of content on YouTube, showing that our policies and processes are effective, and getting better over time,” said Nicklas Lundblad, Google’s vice president of public policy in EMEA.

“We’ve learned valuable lessons from the process, but there is still more we can do.”

The Commission is likely to issue a recommendation at the end of February on how companies should take down extremist content related to militant groups, an EU official said.

(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Grant McCool and David Goodman)

London attacker took steroids before deadly rampage, inquest told

Police officers and forensics investigators and police officers work on Westminster Bridge the morning after an attack by a man driving a car and weilding a knife left five people dead and dozens injured, in London, Britain, March 23, 2017.

LONDON (Reuters) – The man who mowed down pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge before killing a police officer outside Britain’s parliament last year had taken steroids beforehand, a London court heard on Monday.

Last March Khalid Masood, 52, killed four people on the bridge before, armed with two carving knives, he stabbed to death an unarmed police officer in the grounds of parliament. He was shot dead at the scene.

It was the first of five attacks on Britain last year which police blamed on terrorism.

A submission to a pre-inquest hearing into the fatalities at London’s Old Bailey Court said there was evidence that Masood had taken anabolic steroids in the hours or days before his death.

“A more specialist pharmaceutical toxicologist … has been instructed to prepare a report addressing how steroid use may have affected Khalid Masood,” the submission by the inquiry’s lawyer Jonathan Hough said.

The hearing also heard from Gareth Patterson, a lawyer representing relatives of four of the victims, who lambasted tech firms over their stance on encryption and failing to remove radicalizing material from websites.

Patterson said families wanted answers about how Masood, who was known to the UK security service MI5, was radicalized and why shortly before his attack, he was able to share an extremist document via WhatsApp.

He said victims’ relatives could not understand “why it is that radicalizing material continues to be freely available on the internet”.

“We do not understand why it’s necessary for WhatsApp, Telegram and these sort of media applications to have end-to-end encryption,” he told the hearing at London’s Old Bailey court.

Patterson told Reuters following the hearing that he was “fed up” of prosecuting terrorism cases which featured encryption and particularly the WhatsApp messaging service.

“How many times do we have to have this?” he said.

The British government has been pressurizing companies to do more to remove extremist content and rein in encryption which they say allows terrorists and criminals to communicate without being monitored by police and spies, while also making it hard for the authorities to track them down.

However, it has met quiet resistance from tech leaders like Facebook, Google and Twitter and critics say ending encryption will weaken security for legitimate actions and open a back door for government snooping.

Samantha Leek, the British government’s lawyer, said the issues over encryption and radicalization were a matter of public policy and too wide for an inquest to consider.

Police say Masood had planned and carried out his attack alone, despite claims of responsibility from Islamic State, although a report in December confirmed he was known to MI5 for associating with extremists, particularly between 2010 and 2012, but not considered a threat.

Coroner Mark Lucraft said the inquest, which will begin in September, would seek to answer “obvious and understandable questions” the families might have.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)