Last week, an Israel-based social media manipulation company was singled out by Facebook for creating hundreds of fake social media accounts which Facebook claimed it had used to influence political discourse and elections in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Facebook announced on May 16 that it had banned the Archimedes Group, which boasted that it could “change reality according to our client’s wishes,” from its platform.
Facebook banned Archimedes for its “coordinated and deceptive behavior” and conducted a sweeping takedown of accounts and pages primarily aimed at disrupting elections in African countries. Overall, the misleading accounts had reached some 2.8 million users, and the pages had engaged over 5,000 followers, according to Facebook’s estimates. Facebook said Archimedes had spent some $800,000 on fake ads and that its deceptive activity dated back to 2012.
News outlets all over the world reported on the event, with some remarking that this time it was Israelis, not Russians, meddling in other countries’ elections.
“This is really bad for Israel’s reputation,” a source within the Israeli government told The Times of Israel.
Archimedes Group’s website offered no clues as to who was behind the site, with the exception of an address at Yigal Alon Street 98 in Tel Aviv. On May 16, the Wall Street Journal, using social media and other publicly available data, identified two of the senior executives at the Archimedes Group as Elinadav Heymann and Yuval Harel, both of whom have since taken down their social media profiles.
The Times of Israel has established that the Archimedes Group operates from an office at 26 Harokmim Street in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and is registered under the name B. Archimedes Ltd. in Israel’s corporate registry.
The Times of Israel visited the Archimedes Group’s offices on May 22, and asked to speak to a representative of the company, but was escorted out of the office and told that company executives did not wish to speak to reporters.
The offices, which are located on the sixth floor of building C of the Azrieli office complex in Holon, are fashionably furnished in a modern style favored by Israeli startups. Inside, about a half-dozen people who appeared to be in their early to mid-20s were socializing in a lounge area. The office did not show any signs of closing or winding down its operations in the wake of Facebook’s revelations.
The door of the office was unmarked, with only a small sign that says “unit 17” in Hebrew letters above the doorway.
According to Israel’s corporate registry, B. Archimedes Ltd. was registered on February 21, 2016 by two men: a lawyer named Jonathan Ovadia whose office is in Jerusalem, and a man named Yuval Harel of Har Adar.
The company is wholly owned by Bulldozer Holdings Ltd. which in turn is jointly owned by Jonathan Ovadia, Yuval Harel and Elinadav Heymann.
Heymann, who lives in Jerusalem, is a former adviser to former Yisrael Beytenu Knesset member Anastasia Michaeli and former director of European Friends of Israel, an NGO that lobbied the European parliament on behalf of Israel-related causes. In the past, Heymann blogged at The Times of Israel.
The Times of Israel phoned Ovadia, Harel and Heymann to obtain a response to the allegations Facebook has made against their company, but was unable to reach them.
This article will be updated in the event that they respond.
Why are Israelis allegedly trying to meddle in African politics?
Among the countries allegedly targeted by the Archimedes Group were Malaysia, Congo, Tunisia and Togo. A report from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab also found that Archimedes stumped for the winning candidate in February’s Nigerian presidential elections, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari. One of the pages that Facebook took down appeared filled with viral misinformation attacking Atiku Abubakar, the former vice president and Buhari’s main rival. The page’s banner image showed Abubakar as Darth Vader, the Star Wars villain, holding up a sign reading, “Make Nigeria Worse Again.”
A source inside the Israeli government who asked not to be named told The Times of Israel that while he is not sure that Israel has more social media manipulation companies than do other countries, to the extent that it does, it is because many young Israelis who serve in intelligence units in the army are trained in the use of avatars, or fake identities, on social media.
“IDF intelligence likes to use avatars,” he said. “They use them against Israel’s greatest enemies and they’re extremely effective. The problem is that you have all these young people who served in the 8200 intelligence unit and who know how to create fake profiles, and when they leave the army some of them say ‘I want to make money’ and they sell their skills to whoever will pay them.”
The official lamented that there are no negative consequences for those who engage in this kind of cyber-mercenary activity, and that in fact, even when Israeli psy-ops companies are publicly shamed on the world stage, it only seems to bring them more customers.
“The companies make even more money when their activities are publicized, but the country as a whole suffers damage to its reputation,” this official said.
On May 16, Facebook announced that it had removed 265 Facebook and Instagram accounts, pages, groups and events linked to the Archimedes Group.
The Israeli government official told The Times of Israel that 265 accounts is a drop in the bucket, and that there are probably tens of thousands of bogus accounts operated by numerous companies in Israel alone and millions of such accounts worldwide.
Facebook could tackle the problem if it wanted to, the official charged. Instead, he said, Facebook has opted for a cosmetic PR move of banning a single Israeli company when alleged fake news activity is rampant on its platform.
“The problem is Facebook,” he said, “Facebook has to be regulated. While I think what some Israeli companies are doing is damaging Israel’s reputation, I think that by pointing the finger at Israel, Facebook is diverting attention from itself. Facebook is the real problem. It needs to be held accountable and to pay a price for spreading fake news and making it go viral.”
Facebook declined to comment.