The United States has seized 92 domain names allegedly used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRG) to conduct a global disinformation campaign targeting the upcoming elections, the Department of Justice said.
Four of the domains (newsstand7.com, usjournal.net, usjournal.us and twtoday.net) pretended to be genuine news outlets but were actually controlled by the IRG in an attempt to spread Iranian propaganda to influence U.S. domestic and foreign policy, Justice Department officials said. The remainder were operated similarly to dispense Iranian agitprop to Western Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. All 92 domains violated U.S. sanctions targeting both the Iranian government and the IRGC, the law enforcement agency said.
Visitors to the websites will receive a message that the domain was seized by the FBI.
In shuttering the domains, officials cited the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which establishes a registration, reporting, and disclosure regime for agents of foreign non-government individuals and entities so that the U.S. government and the citizenry are informed of the source of information and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy and law, according to Justice Department materials.
“We will continue to use all of our tools to stop the Iranian government from misusing U.S. companies and social media to spread propaganda covertly, to attempt to influence the American public secretly and to sow discord,” said John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security. “Fake news organizations have become a new outlet for disinformation spread by authoritarian countries as they continue to try to undermine our democracy.” All 92 domains are owned and operated by U.S. companies.
In an infrequent acknowledgement of collaboration between the federal government and social media companies, Justice credited Google, Facebook and Twitter with supplying intelligence to the investigation. “This case is a perfect example of why the San Francisco Division prioritizes maintaining an ongoing relationship with a variety of social media and technology companies,” said John Bennett, special agent in charge of the unit. “These relationships enable a quick exchange of information to better protect against threats to the nation’s security and our democratic processes," he said.
The U.S. has designated the IRG as a Foreign Terrorist Organization for its material support to a number of terrorist groups, including Hizballah, Hamas and the Taliban.
The seizures are part of a stepped-up U.S. initiative that has extended to the private sector to smoke out foreign influence in the upcoming elections. Last week, Twitter’s security unit said it had removed roughly 130 accounts that “appeared to originate in Iran.” Those accounts, Twitter said, were “attempting to disrupt the public conversation” following the first debate between President Trump and Joe Biden.
Two weeks earlier, Microsoft outed three prolific hacking crews from China, Iran and Russia for allegedly executing hundreds of cyber assaults on organizations and staffers associated with the Trump and Biden election campaigns. And, in mid-August, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien warned U.S. cyber adversaries China, Iran and Russia that intervening in the upcoming U.S. elections will bring “severe consequences.”