Takedown of 92 Iran-owned domains includes 4 used for disinformation in US, feds say

Tehran. (Getty Images)

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The U.S. government says it seized 92 internet domains used “to spread pro-Iranian disinformation around the globe,” including four that directly targeted U.S. audiences.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operated the domains in violation of U.S. sanctions, according to a Justice Department announcement Wednesday. The department said the operation was based on intelligence provided by Google, and was a collaborative effort between the FBI and Google, Facebook and Twitter.

The other 88 domains “targeted audiences in Western Europe, the Middle East, and South East Asia and masqueraded as genuine news outlets,” the department said. The feds claimed jurisdiction over all 92 domains because the government of Iran and the IRGC ran them through “website and domain services in the United States without a license from OFAC,” the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The announcement is the latest in a steady stream of news about attempts by U.S. agencies or Silicon Valley giants to monitor foreign information operations as Election Day looms large on the calendar. Russia and Iran have sat atop the list of nation-states drawing the blame. Reports about global Iranian information operations stretch back to at least 2018.

Information seems to be flowing more freely than ever between federal law enforcement and the big U.S. social media companies. Last week Twitter said it acted on an FBI tip to take down about 130 fake accounts that appeared to originate in Iran and were trying to disrupt the U.S. conversation about the first debate between President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

FARA violations

The seized domains were not specifically oriented around U.S. elections, but Justice official John Demers framed them as part of foreign efforts to sow discord in the U.S.

“Fake news organizations have become a new outlet for disinformation spread by authoritarian countries as they continue to try to undermine our democracy,” said Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security. “Today’s actions show that we can use a variety of laws to vindicate the value of transparency.”

The Justice Department said the four domains targeted at U.S. audiences — newsstand7.com, usjournal.net, usjournal.us and twtoday.net — were seized specifically under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a transparency law that governs the political activities of representatives of foreign entities in the U.S.

“Here, the four domains purported to be independent news outlets, but were actually operated by or on behalf of the IRGC to target the United States with pro-Iranian propaganda in an attempt to influence the American people to change United States foreign and domestic policy toward Iran and the Middle East,” the department said.

Domestic disinformation and conspiracy theories continue to be a problem for U.S. social media companies. On Wednesday, Facebook said it was banning all accounts related to the conspiracy theory QAnon.

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Department of Justice (DOJ), domains, Facebook, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Google, information operations, international, Iran, john demers, law enforcement, media, OFAC, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Twitter
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