The Central Elections Committee convened Wednesday to discuss a petition seeking to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party banned from campaigning on social media after a watchdog claimed the ruling party had deployed an army of fake Twitter accounts.
The petition was filed by the Blue and White party earlier this week in response to a report by an Israeli watchdog group which said it had uncovered a network of social media bots disseminating messages in support of the prime minister ahead of next week’s elections.
Big Bots Project identified 154 accounts using false names, and another 400 accounts that were suspected to be fake. Researchers said they found over 130,000 tweets from “hundreds of fake or anonymous accounts” without names or profile pictures, which did not identify themselves as linked to Netanyahu’s Likud party. The also identified “hundreds of genuine accounts” backing the premier’s bid for re-election.
Among the targets were journalists and public figures considered hostile to Netanyahu including his main challenger, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party.
Big Bots report identified a major figure behind the networks as Yitzhak Haddad, who told a private investigator in a recorded conversation that he was an “undercover activist” for the social media campaign. Haddad told the investigator the initiative promoting Netanyahu involved “a lot of money” and that he was in contact with senior Likud members.
However, at the hearing Haddad denied any links to the Likud party, claiming his Twitter account was a personal one.
“I am neither a political activist nor an undercover activist,” he told the panel.
When he was asked to explain his remarks recorded in the phone call, Haddad said: “Someone contacted me over the phone about something else.”
“It struck me as odd, but I wanted to know who it was,” he said. “He was the one who brought up the issue of right-wing political activism, so I just told him that I was an undercover activist.”
Haddad was pressed by committee chairman Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, who appeared unconvinced by the responses.
“What did you mean when you said there was a lot of money involved?” he asked Haddad.
“I meant that if a social media network like that did exist, it would probably cost a lot of money,” he told the judge. “But I have no idea myself, I don’t understand these kinds of things,” he said.
“Then why did you say in the call that you were in contact with Likud lawyers,” Melcer pressed.
“It was a joke, its all for the sake of Zionism,” Haddad said.
Unamused, Melcer asked Haddad if the conversation took place during Purim, the Jewish festival where pranks are common.
Likud social media campaign manager Yonatan Orich was also questioned and denied the ruling party had ties to any of the fake accounts, calling the Big Bots findings a “fake report.”
“The Likud does not operate a single bot, or a social media network,” he told the panel, adding that all of its digital campaign activities are reported.
The hearing came a day after Melcer urged police to investigate suspected Likud campaign law violations for funding of an online initiative to encourage right-wing voter turnout.
Melcer called for a criminal probe after Likud director general Tzuri Siso, told the committee that the ruling party was behind the Move to the Right initiative.
According to the Haaretz daily, Likud has bankrolled Move to the Right to the tune of NIS 15 million (approximately $4.1 million).
Siso’s Tuesday admission marked a reversal from Likud’s claims up until then that it had no direct ties to Move to the Right, which has not been identifying itself as an official party initiative required by election advertising transparency laws.
Melcer urged Likud to get its story straight, fined the party NIS 15,000 ($4,150) and recommended the opening of a police criminal probe — to be completed within three months and submitted to the attorney general and state comptroller.
After the Big Bots findings were published on Monday, Netanyahu convened a press conference where he dismissed the report sarcastically, saying he thought it was an April Fool’s Day prank. He called it a “false libel” by the media based on a “fake investigation.”
“Almost all of the examples, perhaps all of them, turned out to be real people. They have a name, they have a face, they have families, and the worst thing: they have opinions of their own. Independent people,” Netanyahu said. “Not one of them is fake.”
Though the researchers had not claimed the accounts were not run by real people, a handful of Twitter users featured in the report spoke to media outlets to prove they were real.
At the press conference, Netanyahu paraded 64-year-old Giora Ezra in front of the media to prove that his online supporters were real.
But his attempt to present living evidence of his popular support soon appeared to backfire as dozens of Ezra’s tweets began to emerge, many of them featuring abusive, homophobic and racist insults directed at the prime minister’s rivals, journalists, and public officials.