A secretive group based in Israel used a network of Facebook pages to disseminate fake news to over a million followers during a two-year coordinated campaign, The Guardian reported on Thursday.
The investigation said a group of accounts based in Israel had contacts with 21 far-right Facebook pages in the US, Australia, the UK, Austria and Nigeria. The group used the pages to post over a thousand fake news posts per week and earned advertising revenue from the traffic to the pages.
The posts, which included both false information and distorted news reports, stoked Islamophobia by demonizing Muslim politicians, attacked left-wing lawmakers, and played up far-right political parties.
The covert effort targeted US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the report alleged.
A single entity was responsible for coordinating the posts on the pages, which included accounts focused on pro-Israel content, the report said.
The Israel-based group reportedly approached the administrators of existing pages and offered to serve as editors of the pages to increase their reach, then coordinated the publishing of identical posts across the network.
The campaign published at least 165,000 posts, receiving some 14.3 million likes, comments or shares. In October alone, the campaign published 5,695 posts, garnering 846,424 reactions.
One page identified in the report is titled “Pissed off Deplorables” and based in Florida.
The posts directed users to 10 websites with a high volume of advertisements to generate revenue. The founders of the Facebook groups were not aware that the Israel-based editors were profiting from the pages.
Tlaib and Omar, the first Muslim women elected to Congress, were singled out by the campaign’s organizers, the report said. In the two years since the effort started, Omar was mentioned in over 1,400 posts, and Tlaib in close to 1,200 posts. No other member of Congress was mentioned nearly as many times.
Left-wing politicians were targeted during election campaigns, including UK Labour head Jeremy Corbyn and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Also targeted were London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, and Mehreen Faruqi, Australia’s first female Muslim senator.
While I was attacked, Facebook profited.
This piece reveals a disturbing new level of far right coordination which platforms Islamophobia, division and hatred towards Muslims and directs it at individuals like myself and @IlhanMN. https://t.co/Jaiv1UpuAO
— Mehreen Faruqi (@MehreenFaruqi) December 5, 2019
The report named a jeweler from Lod, who went by the user name Ariel1238a, as a key figure in the effort. After The Guardian approached the suspect for comment on the investigation, some of the network’s pages and content were removed, the report said. He denied any involvement in the campaign.
Facebook took down several pages and accounts after being informed of the investigation. The users had violated company policies against spam and fake accounts, a company spokesperson said.
Omar said of the report: “As this report makes clear, foreign interference – whether by individuals or governments – is still a grave threat to our democracy. These are malicious actors operating in a foreign country, Israel, spreading misinformation and hate speech to influence elections in the United States.”
“The goal of these anti-Muslim hate campaigns is clear – they put Muslim lives here and around the world at risk and undermine our country’s commitment to religious pluralism,” Omar said.
The social media giant has come under heavy fire in recent years for politically-motivated disinformation on its platforms. The company also owns the massively popular Instagram social media network and WhatsApp messenger service.
Political ads on Facebook became a major issue during the 2016 US presidential election, when Russian agents posted thousands of ads on the platform aimed at sowing divisions in the US and influencing the election.
The company said last month that it was ramping up efforts to combat foreign interference and disinformation ahead of the 2020 US presidential elections.
Facebook last month also said that it had nixed 5.4 billion accounts so far in 2019, and that it prevented millions of attempts to create fake accounts each day.
Omar and Tlaib are supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and frequent critics of the Jewish state.
In August the two lawmakers were denied entry to Israel under a 2017 law allowing Israel to ban supporters of the boycott movement. The move sparked a major spat between Israel and the Democratic party, and drew heavy criticism internationally.