Coalition of Israeli diplomats, programmers working to beat election cyber bots
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Coalition of Israeli diplomats, programmers working to beat election cyber bots

Activists are seeking to identify nefarious networks on social media and get them removed. ‘Once a reporter writes it in a serious newspaper, fake news becomes real news,’ one says

Engineers from the Israeli company "Commun.it" use their expertise in social media commercial analysis to identify networks of fake users, at their offices in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv on January 23, 2019 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Engineers from the Israeli company "Commun.it" use their expertise in social media commercial analysis to identify networks of fake users, at their offices in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv on January 23, 2019 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Numerous Israeli journalists recently received direct messages on their Twitter accounts linking to a sensational news story.

The sender, using the Jewish-sounding name “Bina Melamed,” directed them to a fake story falsely alleging former Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman was a Russian spy.

Four Israeli journalists — hoodwinked by the article appearing on a rogue but convincing duplicate of Harvard University’s website — spread the story, before it was exposed.

Bina Melamed, which turned out to be a fake account operating from Turkey, has become a cause celebre of attempts to propagate fake news in Israel through bots.

And cases of cyber sabotage are rising, ahead of April elections.

Elad Ratson of the Foreign Ministry (YouTube screenshot)

So a coalition of Israeli diplomats, programmers and hackers have joined forces to stave off threats — including from hostile states — by identifying networks on social media and getting them removed.

In some cases, like Bina Melamed, disinformation makes its way from social to professional media.

“We blocked that within 24 hours by contacting them (the account holder) directly,” said Elad Ratson, a Foreign Ministry diplomat who spearheads Israel’s efforts against fake news bots.

From fake to ‘real’ news

Digital intervention could aim to sway Israel’s election results, according to Itai Brun and David Siman-Tov, researchers at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

But beyond supporting one Israeli candidate over another, foreign cyber intervention could be an opportunity “to deepen polarization in Israeli society and damage public faith in the democratic process,” they wrote in a recent paper.

Nadav Argaman, head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, raised concerns in early January. Privately-owned Channel 12 news (also known as Hadashot) quoted him warning of a cyber intervention in the April 9 poll by a foreign state.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was foiling cyber-attacks from Iran daily, without specifying the nature of the attacks.

Engineers from the Israeli company “Commun.it” use their expertise in social media commercial analysis to identify networks of fake users, at their offices in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv on January 23, 2019 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Insiders say Shin Bet has a significant and capable cyber unit, but the Foreign Ministry is leading public engagement with social media giants.

Ratson said companies like Facebook and Twitter “don’t like dealing with states,” but can stomach the softer approach of diplomats.

The Foreign Ministry began working in 2015 to form “a broad coalition” of experts who could help keep the public discourse uncontaminated by sabotage, he said.

Since the alleged Russian campaign aimed at tipping the US election in favor of Donald Trump in 2016, “we were preparing for when elections would take place in Israel and we’d be the target,” Ratson added.

“We have identified five foreign attempts of disinformation in a level of sophistication indicating a state involvement” once it became apparent in November that Israel was heading for early elections, he said.

Two of the Israelis collaborating with Ratson are Sharel Omer and Ran Margaliot, co-founders of commun.it, a company that deals in social media management and risks to brand reputation.

They are experts in identifying networks of bots that will interact with a central fake account and other real accounts, lying largely dormant until it is time to act.

Sharel Omer (R) and Ran Margaliot (L), co-founders of the Israeli company “Commun.it”, pose during an interview with Agence France-Presse in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv on January 23, 2019 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“The goal of the bot networks is to take a narrative from the realm of Twitter and Facebook and transfer it into the ‘traditional’ world,” Omer said.

“Once a ‘traditional’ reporter writes it in a serious newspaper, the fake news becomes real news.”

Omer and Margaliot will follow suspect accounts and networks and establish evidence they are illegitimate attempts to artificially instill a narrative before presenting findings to Twitter so that the media giant can shut the accounts down.

Hundreds of Twitter accounts have been closed due to their work, Omer said.

‘Platforms for people’

Alongside the US, Britain, France and the Ukraine have been widely cited as recent targets of state-orchestrated cyber campaigns.

While the Shin Bet and Ratson refused to name the countries of origin for networks targeting Israel, independent hacker and activist Noam Rotem is less cautious.

Noam Rotem, a hacker and an activist who has been monitoring and identifying networks of bots operating from outside and within Israel, speaks during an interview in the city of Petah Tikva on January 23, 2019 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

He names Saudi Arabia and Iran, “and we’re pretty sure Russia.”

Rotem noted that his project to monitor the Israeli internet for “suspicious, non-organic” activity aimed at “influencing things by amplifying messages” uncovered local networks too.

The motivation of each network is not immediately apparent in most cases. Commercial interests sometimes come into play, he said.

Rotem and his partner Yuval Adam will present their findings on malicious networks to Twitter when the time is ripe.

“If they don’t listen to us, we involve other professionals like Ratson from the Foreign Ministry,” he said.

To Rotem, safeguarding the Israeli internet ahead of the elections is part of a broader ideal.

“Our goal is to distance these foreign influences and leave the platforms the way democracy would have it — for people,” Rotem said.

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