AG says insufficient evidence showing Likud behind fake social media army
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AG says insufficient evidence showing Likud behind fake social media army

Mandelblit issues legal opinion in response to petition by Blue and White following report of online troll network supporting Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes far-right Likud supporter Giora Ezra to the podium at a press conference, at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes far-right Likud supporter Giora Ezra to the podium at a press conference, at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Tuesday said there was insufficient evidence to show a series of social media accounts supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were funded by his Likud party and spread election propaganda in violation of electoral law.

Mandelblit’s opinion was included in a letter to Central Elections Committee head and Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer and came in response to a petition by the rival Blue and White party following the publication of a report detailing a number of allegedly fake pro-Netanyahu social media profiles.

The report, which was compiled by Israeli social media watchdog Big Bots Project and reported by The New York Times and Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth Monday, identified 154 accounts using false names or identities, and another 400 accounts that were suspected to be fake.

The accounts were said to appear to work in coordination, sharing each others’ posts, and in a clear trend, their online activity increased nearly fivefold after the elections were announced in December last year.

Researchers said it was unclear who was operating the network, but said the suspicious accounts relayed tens of thousands of tweets and garnered over 2.5 million engagements.

Leaders of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, left, and MK Yair Lapid, hold a press conference, in Tel Aviv, on March 31, 2019. (Flash90)

The reports were swiftly seized upon by Blue and White, which accused the prime minister of waging “info terror” and using fake news to sway the upcoming April 9 election.

Blue and White, an alliance of retired military chief Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, filed a police complaint and urged an investigation into Likud on suspicion of breaking election laws.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at conference at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan on March 28, 2019. (Flash90)

In his letter, Mandelblit noted the complaint to police was also based on the newspaper reports, suggesting there was unlikely sufficient evidence to open a criminal investigation into the social media accounts.

Responding to Blue and White’s accusations, Netanyahu on Monday accused his political rivals of lying and branding Likud voters as “bots,” though the report did not say the accounts were not run by real people. He hosted a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Residence at which he presented Giora Ezra, who runs a pro-Netanyahu Twitter account under the moniker “Captain George,” and who assured journalists that he was personally in charge of his account. Ezra is a far-right political activist with a history of lashing out against the prime minister’s rivals, journalists, and public officials, with racist and homophobic statements.

The network of accounts in question were responsible for spreading a wide range of critical — and in some cases slanderous — posts and rumors that began to focus on Gantz and Blue and White as they emerged as the chief competitors to Netanyahu in the coming April 9 election, the reports found. The accounts also gave particular attention to posts by the prime minister’s son Yair Netanyahu, sharing his comments via social media. Similar attention was also given to others, among them senior figures in the Likud election campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes far-right Likud supporter Giora Ezra to the podium at a press conference, at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Researchers identified a single account linked to the others, and traced its ownership to Yitzhak Haddad, a resident of the southern city of Ashdod, who apparently organizes online promotion campaigns. It was not clear from the report whether Haddad was being cited as the originator of the network.

According to Yedioth, a private investigator spoke to Haddad who, in explaining the kind of network campaign he runs, said it involves “a lot of money.” He also told the investigator that he has connections with “very senior figures in Likud.”

Haddad is named as one of the defendants in Blue and White’s petition, along with Likud and Mandelblit.

Several Twitter users mentioned in the report have stepped forward to identify themselves since its publication.

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