Covid-19 is “an American creation”. King Salman of Saudi Arabia “dies of coronavirus”. These are among the fantastical lies about the pandemic so far peddled by the International Union of Virtual Media, an Iranian disinformation platform.
IUVM was subject to a fresh wave of criticism in early April after publishing a slurry of inflammatory cartoons, videos and news articles about the virus with a pro-Iranian regime slant on its constellation of affiliated websites.
In a stinging report published on April 4, social network analysts Graphika found the prolific media outfit – long thought to be a proxy for Iranian state media, but one whose financial backing remains unclear – had for the past five weeks been repackaging conspiracy theories about Covid-19 as news and republishing them on a series of freshly-created Facebook pages purporting to be independent news agencies.
IUVM’s publications on this theme began on February 24: days after Iran confirmed its first deaths from coronavirus. Its coronavirus-related narratives have variously blamed America for the outbreak – echoing the claim made by Ayatollah Khamenei that the virus is “a biological war led by Trump to strike at China’s economy” – attacked Western media coverage of the pandemic, lavished praise on the Chinese response to the virus and trumpeted Iran’s domestic handling of Covid-19.
Researchers wrote: “IUVM’s geopolitical approach has consistently reflected that of the Iranian government: it is pro-Iran and pro-Palestinian, while taking every opportunity to criticize Saudi Arabia, the United States, Israel and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.”
After the Graphika report was published, the Facebook pages were promptly taken down and many of IUVM’s new affiliated Twitter accounts have been suspended. But after a lull in new posts about coronavirus on some of its platforms, the embattled network’s websites have now falteringly begun to post fresh content on the pandemic.
Shady Platform’s Latest Missives on Coronavirus
Recent posts on IUVM’s main websites, IUVMPress, IUVMPixel, IUVMTV and IUVMArchive, are more circumspect than they were prior to the April 4 exposé. Fewer outright lies about coronavirus or how it has been handled to date are now being published – with some notable exceptions.
“Al-Saud threatens Secretary General of WHO to Death”, screams the headline of a poster on IUVM Archive, dated April 19. It features a photo of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman pointing at World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom, who is labelled “Next project” – as opposed to the assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose photo is labelled “Previous project”. Bedecked with the hashtags #DEATH and #saudi crimes, the image has been shared just twice. The claim is, of course, false.
Memes and cartoons lambasting Donald Trump’s response to the outbreak – generally lifted from other websites, with or without accreditation – are also still being circulated on IUVM’s webpages. One poster published on April 19 bears the legend “American people dying; Trump thinking of war” while others feature the US President alternately swallowing and defecating coronavirus.
On April 12 IUVM Archive ran an array of shareable posters featuring quotes from Ayatollah Khamenei which bear the watermark of the Supreme Leader’s website, khamenei.ir. They claim the pandemic “has revealed the outcome of Western culture and civilization” and repeat an accusation issued by Germany in early April that the US “confiscated” protective masks bound for other countries, which the United States has so far denied.
IUVM Press is also working overtime to present the Iranian response to coronavirus in a positive light. An article published on April 17 repeated a statement from Health Minister Saeed Namaki that Iran was “about to fully contain Covid-19 in most provinces”, while an article on April 18 complained of a “Covid-19 media bias” in non-state Persian news services. In line with Iranian state media the website also claimed a coronavirus test device invented by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps had been unveiled on April 15. A recent IranWire article revealed that the device is fake and is a reinvention of a previous fake bomb and narcotics detector.
February 24 to April 4: Open Season for Conspiracy Theories
From late February onwards the focus of newly-published content on IUVM’s websites had belatedly shifted from the assassination of IRGC General Ghasem Soleimani to the pandemic. On February 24, IUVM Press ran an article headlined “Is coronavirus an American creation?”, speculating that the US would be the “biggest beneficiary” to a biological weapon that would “paralyze China”.
This was followed by a slew of cartoons on IUVM Pixel whose captions claimed the virus was “made in the USA” and “a biological war led by Trump to strike at China’s economy”. On March 13 IUVM Press quoted Ayatollah Khamenei as saying the virus “might be an act of bioterrorism” and followed up with another article on March 23 entitled “Is coronavirus part of America’s biological warfare?”, in which the authors surmised: “It is no coincidence that the virus selectively goes to countries that are considered enemies of the United States”.
IUVM outlets have also accused Western media of conducting “psychological warfare” against Iran by over-reporting on the scale of the outbreak in the country. An article on April 5 called the virus “a new excuse for Iranophobia” and went on to downplay the severity of Covid-19, calling it “ very similar to the common cold... very low mortality rates compared to the epidemics of the past few years”.
IUVM also blamed Western “media attacks” for “influencing people’s minds and associating them with these media flows against the Chinese people and products”. At the same time, IUVM Press and IUVM Pixel published numerous articles and graphics congratulating China on its actions to block the spread of coronavirus and on March 24, thanking “the friendly Chinese people for standing by Iran in the Coronavirus crisis”.
The content on IUVM’s website does not seem to have been widely shared beyond other pro-Iranian regime outlets. But Graphika’s investigations shed light on three Facebook accounts claiming to be local news outlets, that had been set up in January seemingly with the sole purpose of disseminating IUVM content to a wider audience. Throughout March the three pages, “Daily news” “Ethiopianow” and “Durban Daily” constantly reposted content from IUVM, often within minutes of each other, as well as content from Iranian state-run channels PressTV, Pars Today and the Tehran Times.
They have since been pulled from Facebook, becoming the latest wave in dozens of fake social media accounts run by IUVM and pulled from the web since the network was first exposed in 2018.
Whose Outfit Is This Anyway?: IUVM’s Messy Trajectory So Far
The first website openly affiliated with IUVM is thought to be iuvm.org, which was registered in 2015 in Dubai. Its own statute notes that the company is based in Tehran.
A rambling paragraph on the main page claims IUVM brings together “independent and effective activists who have background of defending the truth of world, poor world, the people of Palestine, the rights of independent nations on nuclear issue and etc”.
Its stated aims include “confronting with arrogance media”, “to introduce the message of people original revolutions what based on wisdom and nature” and “confronting with deviation wave and western wrong patterns in different media fields”.
IUVM purports to be an independent institution and it is not yet clear if a single actor or proprietor is responsible for the output. But since its foundation, its sprawling network of openly- and covertly-affiliated websites have copied and created online content that reflects and amplifies the narratives of the Iranian government. As a result IUVM-affiliated pages on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Insagram have been subject to repeated takedowns by the platforms in recent years.
The operation was first exposed in August 2018, leading to a mass deletion of IUVM-linked assets on Facebook and more than 1 million IUVM-associated posts on Twitter. An initial report by cybersecurity firm FireEye was followed up by research by Reuters and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
These organizations found IUVM had been operating across 70 different websites, many of which were linked through shared email addresses and phone numbers, engaging in the “rapid and systematic” copying of Iranian state-backed content and sharing these articles across more than 600 fake Facebook accounts in 11 different languages as “part of an Iranian project to covertly influence public opinion in other countries”.
“IUVM pushes content from Iranian state media and other outlets aligned with the government in Tehran across the internet,” Reuters surmised, “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.
“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.”
Even after the cull and successive other disruptive strikes against Iranian disinformation operations in May 2019 and February 2020, the internet is littered with the remnants of IUVM’s social media experimentation: defunct Twitter accounts, a histrionic Pinterest page and even a short-lived account on Deviantart, a website more commonly associated with teenage art enthusiasts than the mouthpieces of despotic regimes.
In a more sinister project IUVM also ran its own channel on Telegram, the encrypted instant messaging platform that was used by an estimated 50 million people in Iran to communicate with each other before being banned by the judiciary in April 2018. Prior to the blackout “IUVM App” claimed its purpose was to “collect and compile the necessary Android programs for Cyberspace activists around the world”. It published regular links to what it said were tools such as Skype, Microsoft Office Mobile, TED Talks for Android and video editing software. In fact, though, all these links redirected interested users to a home-grown website, iuvmapp.com.
Distorted coverage of the coronavirus outbreak is only the latest in a string of poisonous campaigns facilitated by IUVM, which in the past week alone has also claimed that the formation of ISIS was a White House initiative to destabilize Iraq. In a February 2020 blog post following the latest cull of fake accounts, Facebook’s head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher admitted: “We are making progress rooting out this abuse, but as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge.”
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