The International Union of Virtual Media: The Long Arm of Iranian Propaganda

A new Reuters investigation of  global Iranian influence operations released November 30 expands significantly on its previous investigation from August, noting that Iran’s network of laundered regime propaganda and lies prompted then Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif to level implicit nuclear threats against Israel.

The particular website, AWDnews, hosts content in English, French, Spanish and German, and is notorious for inventing fake news about Israel that has been cited and shared by politicians from several countries in Europe, Human Rights activists, musicians and even Israeli politician Yair Lapid. It reportedly receives about 12,000 unique monthly visitors.

But AWDnews is only one of over 70 websites in at least 15 countries uncovered by Reuters linked to the Iranian regime, with an aggregated visitor rate of over 500,000 per month and promoted by some social media accounts with over a million followers.

One such website, Sudan Today, has 150,000 unique visitors every month, with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook. Its staff, addresses, and phone numbers are all fake, and it has invented events its staff took part in. Yet Sudan Today has been cited by the Egyptian Electricity Ministry and is followed on Twitter by the Italian Embassy in Sudan. Its content is a mixture of local news and concerns, from sports to bread prices, as well as pro-Iranian propaganda on the Yemen war, in which Sudan is fighting on the side of the Saudi-led coalition. The tactic of utilising domestic issues and attitudes to feed propaganda to a particular audience was repeated in the US, where one major account involved in Iran’s operations changed its name to “@Berniecratss” in 2018.  

Another website in Egypt, Nile Net Online, has over 100,000 followers across multiple platforms. It too had a fake phone number and no address, and Reuters could not contact any of its listed operators. Despite Egypt having strict censorship under its military dictatorship, it has made no moves to shut down the site, which pushes positions diametrically opposed to the official Egyptian line.

The initial discovery of the Iranian influence operations was made by the cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc., which sparked further ongoing investigations by Google, Facebook and Twitter that have resulted in them deleting dozens of websites, pages and accounts across their respective platforms.

This online nexus of accounts and websites is centred around an organisation called the  International Union of Virtual Media, or IUVM, which is based in Tehran. Its motto is “confronting…western governments and Zionism front activities,” which it does by producing or laundering pro-Regime propaganda – and stealing content without permission – through seemingly local websites, such as AWDnews. IUVM is a network of 11 sites that hosts digital content, from stories and cartoons to apps, that help push the Iranian regime’s bottom line.

According to Reuters, working in tandem with FireEye and Israeli cybersecurity company ClearSky, many of these websites and accounts have been active since at least 2012. The sites, particularly the larger ones, such as those analysed by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, are very active, spewing out up to six news stories a day.

Reuters traced 17 of 71 websites analysed back to Iran via their web addresses or Iranian telephone and fax numbers. 22 of the sites shared registration information with the IUVM, including a fake number and a fake address in a Berlin youth hostel. Most of the sites, unfortunately, use American web hosting services that hide the owners and locations, making attribution difficult.

Although Facebook, Twitter, and Google have removed hundreds of accounts and pages, many nodes in the IUVM are still fully operational, including Sudan Today and Nile Net Online, which have over 700,000 followers between them. Other non-English websites and accounts continue to be very active, as well, and as the Pakistani nuclear threat has demonstrated, these are the most dangerous. The full extent of the IUVM has likely yet to be uncovered, but it has already proven far broader and more dangerous than initially believed.