Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan became major targets of fake news for the first time this week following the announcement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be charged with criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe, pending a hearing.
According to the latest weekly fake news report published Thursday by Vocativ, a company owned by Israeli tech investor Mati Kochavi, a quarter of fake news over the past seven days dealt with the cases against the prime minister, Mandelblit and Nitzan.
Fake posts included so-called quotes by the attorney general to the effect that the police and prosecution service were corrupt and a false story about a deal made between the prosecution and Netanyahu, according to which the prime minister would not be indicted for bribery if he quit politics.
Fake news in general was up six percent this week, compared with last week, accounting for some 13% of general online debate, the report said.
Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party and the most serious challenger to Netanyahu in the upcoming April election, retained his position as the object of the most fake news, which had the potential to be seen by 1.5 million surfers. In second place came Netanyahu — although in his case, most of the fake news portrayed him in a positive light.
The leading fake item about Gantz reflected a jump in sophistication with a video, manipulated in the editing room, in which the former army chief of staff was made to look confused, inexperienced and controlled by PR consultants. Although posted by a satirical site, the item was accepted as real by many social network users, Vocativ found. With the potential to be seen by 110,000 surfers, it was then shared by bots and trolls, adding another few tens of thousands of potential viewers.
Bots and trolls were particularly busy spreading claims by a woman that Gantz exposed himself to her when they were in high school some 40 years ago. Last week, the Blue and White party leader filed a half million shekel lawsuit against the woman, Navarone Jacobs.
Bots are pieces of computer code that look like the accounts of real people and that suddenly appear in large numbers to support or delegitimize targets, or to spread disinformation in an attempt to sow general discord or distrust toward governments, news organizations or other institutions.
They tend to take bios from real people and profile pictures from Google. To the untrained eye, these fakes are extremely hard to spot.
Because of their ability to attack, defend, like, comment, share or retweet in huge numbers, they are able to amplify messages and persuade voters of “their” point of view because human beings are more likely to give credence to a message that has hundreds or thousands of likes.
The use of bots and other online tools to spread disinformation — particularly via Facebook — first came to light with allegations that Russia used them to meddle in the 2016 US Presidential elections — a charge the Russians deny.
The bots and the trolls — real people, usually paid to spread inflammatory items online — were also claiming that the media treated Gantz with kid gloves, and were spreading distrust in agencies of government and law enforcement against the backdrop of the announcement to indict the prime minister.
Netanyahu was mentioned in 41,418 posts by bots and trolls, followed by Gantz in 18,383.
Mandelblit published his decision on February 28 to indict the prime minister for fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and for bribery in one of them, pending a hearing.
Though the decision is not final, Mandelblit’s call to charge Netanyahu marks the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has been told he faces criminal charges, and casts a heavy shadow over his re-election campaign.
Netanyahu will have an opportunity to overturn the decision in a hearing expected to take place in the months following Election Day on April 9. The process could take up to a year.
The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claims the investigations are part of efforts by the media and Israeli left to remove him from power, with the support of a dishonest police investigating team, overseen by a “weak” attorney general.