Foreign social media bots spreading fake news about Netanyahu’s rivals — report
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Foreign social media bots spreading fake news about Netanyahu’s rivals — report

Company says non-Israeli sources are amplifying negative false info about Gantz and Sa’ar, and commenting favorably about PM

Illustrative: 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)
Illustrative: 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)

Fake news stories aimed at delegitimizing Israel Resilience party head Benny Gantz were on the rise over the past week, according to a company studying the effects of social media bots on the Israeli public ahead of the upcoming elections, with the disinformation reaching a potential audience of up to 300,000 people.

Israel’s national broadcasting agency, Kan, reported that Vocativ had further discovered that bot attacks targeting Likud member Gideon Sa’ar, considered a rival of party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saw a sharp increase in recent days as well.

Most of the profiles that Vocativ had found to be fake were spreading negative content about Gantz and Sa’ar, while a majority of bots mentioning Netanyahu covered him favorably.

Vocativ analyst Roie Tadmor told Kan that the company believed most of the fake news activity on social media originated from non-Israeli sources, though some bots were being operated locally. He added that it seemed clear an organization of sorts was behind the fake news spreading efforts.

Gideon Sa’ar, then Minister of Interior Affairs, speaks during the Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset about a law proposal for planning and construction, July 16, 2014. (Flash 90)

Bots are pieces of computer code that look like the accounts of real people and that suddenly appear in large numbers to support or delegitimize targets, or to spread disinformation in an attempt to sow general discord or distrust toward governments, news organizations or other institutions.

They tend to take bios from real people and profile pictures from Google. To the untrained eye, these fakes are extremely hard to spot.

Because of their ability to attack, defend, like, comment, share or retweet in huge numbers, they are able to amplify messages and persuade voters of “their” point of view because human beings are more likely to give credence to a message that has hundreds or thousands of likes.

The use of bots and other online tools to spread disinformation — particularly via Facebook — first came to light with allegations that Russia used them to meddle in the 2016 US Presidential elections — a charge the Russians deny.

Benny Gantz arrives to deliver his first electoral speech in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

That election exposed the work of the British firm Cambridge Analytica, which acquired data from tens of millions of Facebook users and then developed algorithms (mathematical rules) to micro-target voters with personalized political messaging from fake accounts.

It focused the spotlight on just how much information social media companies collect about everyone using social media platforms.

It remains unclear whether those who post fake ads on Facebook or elsewhere online will face any legal consequences. That is because Israel’s law on election propaganda does not currently extend to the internet.

Current protection from fake news and disinformation mainly comes from the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, which was written before the advent of the internet and primarily deals with advertising on billboards, radio, planes and boats. Amendments since then have extended the law to TV, regional radio stations and published election surveys, but not yet to the internet.

In January, the head of the Shin Bet security services warned that a foreign state “intends to intervene” through cyber attacks in Israel’s upcoming national elections in April.

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an awards ceremony at the Shin Bet’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, honoring agents who excelled in intelligence operations in 2017 and 2018, on December 4, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Nadav Argaman reportedly said he was “one hundred percent [certain] that a [redacted foreign state] will intervene in the upcoming elections, and I know what I’m talking about, I just don’t know in whose favor.”

The chairman of the Central Elections Committee on Thursday appealed to the Israeli media to help protect the April 9 national elections from illicit foreign interference by, among other precautions, refusing to report news from anonymous sources.

Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer said current election law, which does not extend to digital media the basic transparency requirements that have long been applied to traditional media, “screams out” to be updated. But in the absence of such a change, local media needed to take additional care, Melcer said, to prevent the spread of stories that were unsubstantiated and possibly malicious and false.

The ruling Likud party has to date been preventing the necessary unanimous agreement among existing Knesset parties to extend those requirements voluntarily.

Related: Liberman’s a spy, Yair Netanyahu’s a Christian, and fake news aims to play havoc

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