Instagram pulls account impersonating U.S. government agency

Mourners surround a truck carrying the flag draped coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades in the holy city of Qom south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. The men were killed in a U.S. drone strike on Friday, Jan. 3 in Iraq. The funeral drew a crowd said by police to be in the millions in the Iranian capital, filling thoroughfares and side streets as far as the eye could see. (Amir Hesaminejad/Tasnim News Agency via AP)
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An Instagram account masquerading as a U.S. government news agency was used to promote misinformation about potential fallout from America’s targeted killing last week of Iran’s top general.

The fraudulent Instagram account had nearly a half-million followers and used the name as well as logo of the U.S. government’s news agency in Iran, which is called Voice of America Persian. The Voice of America broadcasts television, radio and online news in countries around the world.

The profile was removed Tuesday afternoon for violating the platform’s impersonation policies after The Associated Press contacted the agency to inquire about the account’s authenticity.

The VOA Persian’s official Instagram account uses the handle VOAFarsi and is verified, with a blue check mark in its profile. The fake account went by the handle VOA_Persian.

On Monday, a post from the fake VOA account triggered a flood of viral misinformation.

The Instagram post included a video clip of slain Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s daughter, Zeinab, speaking at his funeral. The caption of that Instagram post, written in Farsi, claimed that Zeinab Soleimani said she was a U.S. citizen. The post had more than 28,000 likes and 10,000 comments by Monday evening.

Tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube videos picked up the post’s caption, spreading the false claim that Soleimani is a U.S. citizen.

“Soleimani’s daughter threatens death to U.S. soldiers — Voice of America says she’s a US Citizen?!” several Twitter users posted.

Iranian media knocked the reports down as false. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But the possibility that Zeinab Soleimani is an American citizen sparked alarm online, with social media users pointing out that she had threatened U.S. soldiers in comments made during her father’s funeral on Monday.

“The families of the American soldiers … will spend their days waiting for the death of their children,” she said to cheers at the funeral in Tehran.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett confirmed in an email that the VOA did not run the account.

The fake Instagram account had 181 posts before it was removed, Facebook said. Facebook owns Instagram.

The fake Instagram account also listed a YouTube account in its profile. The YouTube account remains active and has not used the VOA’s logo.