“It’s not consistent, but it hasn’t stopped since April,” says Shaghayegh Norouzi, founder of Me_Too_Movement_Iran. “For example, if we are working on a sexual assault report from someone with strong connections to the government, we get a lot of fake followers. In the past 10 days, over 100,000 fake accounts have been added to our public account. They repeatedly report our posts, so Instagram removes our posts. These attacks specifically affect our performance to spread our message and be in contact with women and minorities who need our help.”
Despite having known about the issue for months, Meta tells WIRED that its investigation into the bot attacks is ongoing and not yet complete. “We want everyone to feel safe on Instagram—particularly activists, both in Iran and around the world,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We are continuing to investigate the activists’ concerns and will take action on any accounts that break our rules.”
The company says it has been receiving updates about the issues from Iranian women’s rights activists since April and had taken down hundreds of Instagram accounts in connection with the activity prior to this week. Meta describes the bot bombardments as adversarial but says it has not found evidence of automated or scripted activity. When asked what else could explain the patterns the activists have been seeing on their accounts, the company declined to comment on the record.
After WIRED reached out to Meta for comment, the company initially said it “checkpointed” a few hundred more accounts, a protective measure in which potentially suspicious accounts are blocked unless their owner can confirm their identity. Moments prior to publication, a Meta spokesperson said the company was taking down an additional 18,000 accounts that have targeted Iranian women’s rights groups. The company says that, in contrast to the activists’ reports, it does not see evidence that individual posts are being falsely reported and taken down.
Me_Too_Movement_Iran’s Norouzi says her organization has been forced to create a private Instagram page in addition to its public one in an attempt to create a safe space for legitimate users. But multiple page administrators tell WIRED that it is difficult and time-consuming to screen followers and noted that, of course, creating a private page limits who can see posts.
At the end of June, a consortium of activists released a statement with AccessNow about the attacks on Iranian women’s groups, urging Meta to take action against the bots.
“The fake followers have built a campaign of harassment by using high numbers of comments to intimidate and silence these users,” the groups wrote. “The fake followers have also damaged the credibility of the accounts they have targeted, resulting in a significant loss in engagement, likes, and viewership. This campaign is essentially drowning out the real engagement and outreach these accounts previously had.”
Last month, digital rights and security nonprofit Qurium released an analysis of the campaigns targeting Iranian feminist groups. The researchers found that the bots used in April and May seemed to be purchased from a few specific social media marketing companies based in Pakistan. The firms advertise services through which a customer could spend about $50 to purchase 10,000 bot followers or about $1,500 for up to 1 million fake accounts.