'Artificially inflating anti-Israel social media discourse'

Bots from Gaza trying to delegitimize Israel, inflate hostility, ministry says

Strategic Affairs Ministry highlights surge in fake tweets over annexation and ICC probe in June; ministry says it’s shifting its focus away from battling BDS

Illustrative: Palestinian men use a computer in the southern Gaza Strip on January 20, 2012. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinian men use a computer in the southern Gaza Strip on January 20, 2012. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs released a report on Tuesday that it said revealed a network of 170 inauthentic social media profiles trying to “stir anti-Israel sentiment online.”

The report, based on research done between June and August, cited a spike in inauthentic Twitter activity in late June 2020, when the International Criminal Court was deliberating whether to investigate Israel for alleged war crimes and when Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was gearing up to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank including all of the settlements. (The annexation plan was indefinitely suspended in August, as a condition of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE.)

These accounts, which used hashtags like #ICC4Israel, #ICCPalestine and #StopAnnexation, used fake profile photos and tweeted around the clock, generating thousands of Tweets, the ministry said. About 21 percent of the conversation around these hashtags was inauthentic, the report determined. This helped to create the impression, the report said, that opposition to Israel was stronger than it actually was.

“The findings indicate an organized and coordinated effort to influence public opinion against Israel. As part of their campaign, anti-Israel activists are artificially inflating anti-Israel discourse on social media to instill the appearance of widespread popular support for their cause,” the Ministry of Strategic Affairs said in a press release.

Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen told reporters over Zoom that she had written a letter to Twitter asking it to remove the fake accounts and to do more to combat inauthentic activity on its platform.

Orit Farkash-Hacohen. (Yanai Yechiel)

The director of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, Ronen Manelis, said that while it is legitimate to criticize Israel and that such criticism falls within peoples’ right to free speech, it is not legitimate to do so using fake accounts and inauthentic identities.

“It’s fine to criticize Israel, sometimes it’s even necessary,” Manelis said. “What is problematic is doing it with bots in an automated and coordinated campaign to make a mistaken impression that there is more opposition to Israel than there actually is.”

Manelis, a former IDF spokesman, said that many of the fake accounts were run from the Gaza Strip, and others by “delegitimization organizations” in the UK and the United States. The report specified the Gaza-based organization Palestinian Voices and the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) as connected to fake accounts.

Manelis acknowledged that the network highlighted in the ministry’s report was not particularly large or well-funded. “It doesn’t cost a lot to create bots, this wasn’t a high-budget campaign. But the idea is to detect and shut down these networks in a systematic way.”

A ‘shift’ in the ministry

Farkash-Hacohen, of the centrist Blue and White party, became Minister of Strategic Affairs in May. She said that she and Manelis are trying to shift the focus of the ministry from combatting the BDS movement to combatting delegitimization of the country in a way that Israelis from across the political spectrum can agree on.

“We are focused on combating delegitimization of Israel,” she told reporters, “meaning the unwillingness to accept the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state within any borders at all. Whether people accept Judea and Samaria as part of Israel is a separate issue,” she said.

Ronen Manelis, director of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, speaking to reporters via Zoom, October 27, 2020 (Times of Israel)

Former strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan (LIkud), now Israel’s ambassador to the UN, had taken a hard line against organizations, like Amnesty International, that criticized Israel’s settlement policy; and tried to ban BDS activists from entering Israel.

Related: The relegitimizer: A terror victim’s son partners with government to combat BDS

During their Tuesday press conference, Farkash-Hacohen and Manelis also appeared to distance themselves from the ministry’s previous insistence on secrecy and from rumors that the ministry previously created its own fake accounts and inauthentic messages online.

“We have some projects that involve creating positive content about Israel,” Farkash-Hacohen said, “but the content will be spread openly by real people.”

“As long as we are in this ministry,” said Manelis, “there is not and there will not be any use of technology to create a fake conversation. Everything will be transparent and legal.”

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