With less than two weeks to go before elections on April 9, fake news hit a new high (or low) this week, with most of it favorable toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and unfavorable toward his chief rival, Benny Gantz, a media company reported Thursday.
In its ninth consecutive weekly report on fake news, Vocativ, headed by Israeli tech investor Mati Kochavi, found that telephone text messages purporting to be from political parties became a prominent vector for misinformation during the period of March 20 to 26.
Fake news about Gantz reached a potential audience of up 1.1 million people.
The text messages included false claims that the former army chief of staff’s phone — reportedly hacked by the Iranians — contained embarrassing information about extramarital affairs conducted with women under his command in the army.
One text claimed that the New Right party, headed jointly by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, was intending to support Gantz.
On Tuesday, Shaked blamed the anonymous message on the Likud party and announced on Twitter that she would complain to the Central Elections Committee about it.
On the same day, the committee’s chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, ruled against the use of anonymous election-related text messages in a petition brought by the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party against the left-wing Meretz party.
On Thursday, Shaked clarified in an interview with Army Radio that while her party would not join a government lead by Gantz, she would not rule out joining a future Likud-led government that included him.
Other text messages carried a fabricated WhatsApp conversation between Gantz and his party colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, in which the latter slammed the Blue and White leader for his lackluster performance in an interview with Channel 12 TV news anchor Yonit Levi, in which he appeared to stammer over her name.
That appearance provided the basis for one of the leading fake narratives spread by bots and trolls during the week — that Gantz is mentally unstable.
Other text messages sent to voters’ phones falsely reported that the attorney general had halted his investigation of the submarine affair.
This has seen several of Netanyahu’s close associates suspected of receiving bribes as part of a massive graft scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels and submarines from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.
Veteran Channel 12 news political commentator Amnon Abramovitch came in for a particularly nasty attack in the wake of his reports about shares Netanyahu held in a publicly traded steel manufacturing company, GrafTech International — a longtime supplier of Thyssenkrupp.
Channel 13 reported earlier this month that the State Attorney’s Office was probing a possible link between Netanyahu and Thyssenkrupp.
An anonymous tweet described Abramovitch, whose face was deformed after he was burned in his tank during the 1973 war, as “repulsive inside and out.”
Being burned did not give him the right to sit in a TV studio for 25 years and spit lies out against Likud and Netanyahu, the tweet said.
It added that Abramovitch knew perfectly well that there was no connection between the shares and the submarine scandal.
The Likud party’s own Facebook news channel came under fire last weekend for mocking Abramovitch’s physical appearance.
“Do I look good?” an actor made up to resemble the journalist said.
“You look a bomb,” said Likud TV anchor Eliraz Sadeh, using Israeli slang for someone who looks good.
Blue and White’s Moshe Ya’alon and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit were also targeted with fake news in connection with the shares and submarine probes.
Ya’alon, who once served as defense minister under Netanyahu, said earlier this month that the prime minister’s actions in the corruption case involving submarine purchases could amount to “treason,” drawing rebuke from the Likud party.
Bots and trolls also went after Dana Weiss, another senior journalist for Channel 12, after she posted a video on Twitter about the premier’s son Yair, during which she called him a “zero. and an “aut…shithead,” apparently starting to call him “autistic,” before changing her mind.
The outburst, for which Weiss later apologized, came as she and other members of the press were boarding the prime minister’s plane to Washington, which was reportedly held up by Yair Netanyahu.
Other posts claimed that Netanyahu was “going to jail” — the attorney general plans to bring charges against him (subject to a hearing) in three different cases — and that Iran hoped that Netanyahu would be elected rather than the “three generals” of the Blue and White party (Gantz, Ashkenazi and Ya’alon) because the latter looked “more experienced, aggressive and dangerous” and less suited to the Iranian regime’s agenda.
Tweets that enjoyed the most shares by bots and trolls were related to Weiss’s outburst and to a comment from Channel 12 journalist Amit Segal that he doubted Netanyahu really wanted to kill Gantz.
The latter line referred to a recording of a private conversation with associates released by Channel 13 earlier this week in which Gantz said that if the prime minister had a way to kill him, he would do so.
As in previous weeks, Netanyahu had the most mentions by bots and trolls — 41,864, with most of them positive.
Gantz received around half that number of mentions (19,546) and most of them were negative.
Following behind — all with negative mentions — were Gantz’s co-leader Yair Lapid (7,715 mentions), New Right party co-leader Naftali Bennett (4,580), Ashkenazi (3,292) and Ya’alon (2,908).
Bots (automated messengers) and trolls (people, sometimes paid, who spread inflammatory material) are used to amplify particular points of view or attack people with opposing views.
The Blue and White party continues to maintain a slight lead over Likud in the polls, but Netanyahu currently remains more likely to be able to form a governing coalition following the ballot.