The Blue and White party called Monday morning for police to investigate the funding of fake social media accounts promoting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and spreading smears about his rivals, and accused the premier of “trying to steal the elections.”
In addition, the party called for the Central Elections Committee to order “the immediate cessation of this ugly fake news campaign,” referring to revelations reported in the New York Times and Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Monday morning of hundreds of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts spreading pro-Netanyahu propaganda.
Researchers have identified a network which included 154 accounts using fake names and another 400 accounts which are suspected of being fake, according to a new report by Israeli social media watchdog Big Bots Project cited by both the US and Israeli newspapers. (Led by activists and tech experts Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, Big Bot Project has organized several hackathons to uncover bot networks aimed at influencing the election.) The accounts are said to appear to work in coordination, sharing each others’ posts, and in a clear trend, their online activity increased nearly fivefold after elections were announced in December last year.
The researchers said the accounts were run by people, not bots, under fake names. They found no direct connection between the network and the Likud campaign, the prime minister, or Yair Netanyahu, the reports said, though it “appeared to operate in coordination with the party and Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.”
“The network operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumors,” said the report, which was compiled in cooperation with the Israeli Alliance, an Israeli liberal-leaning organization and was funded through Drove, an Israeli online crowdfunding site. According to the Israeli Alliance’s website, the group receives its own funding from US-based Tides Foundation, a US charity fund that currently lists as its only Israeli partner the left-wing NGO Adalah-The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
One account, belonging to “Moshe” but with the profile picture of Greek model Theo Theodoridis, only posted 18 times during the first three months of 2018, but that jumped to 2,856 times in the first three months of this year.
In total, there have 130,000 posts published by the network — all of them in Hebrew — which have collectively received over 2.5 million hits, the report said.
The accounts were responsible for spreading a wide range of critical — and in some cases slanderous — posts and rumors that began to focus on ex-IDF chief Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party as they emerged as the chief competitors to Netanyahu in the coming April 9 elections, the report found. The accounts also gave particular attention to posts by the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu, sharing his comments via social media. Similar attention was also given to others, among them senior figures in the Likud election campaign.
The posts focus on “spreading the narrative of the Likud party and attacking the opposition, mostly Gantz, but not only, and attacking anyone that is criticizing them,” Rotem said.
Researchers identified a single account linked to the others, and traced the owner to Yitzhak Haddad, a resident of the city of Ashdod, who apparently organizes online promotion campaigns. It was not clear from the report whether Haddad was being cited as the originator of the network.
According to Yedioth, a private investigator spoke to Haddad who, in explaining the kind of network campaign he runs, said it involves “a lot of money.” He also told the investigator that he has connections with “very senior figures in Likud.”
The same investigator also spoke Sunday with Likud election campaign manager Yonatan Urich, who admitted that he knows and works with Haddad. Later, Urich clarified that he only knows Haddad “through Facebook” and has never met him, Yedioth said.
Blue and White said that the report “reveals that the most disgusting slander operation in Israel’s history is being directly operated by Netanyahu.”
The party said that the prime minister is trying to illegitimately manipulate the electorate because he fears losing to Gantz.
“After 13 years of rule, Netanyahu has lost control. After realizing that he is about to lose the election, he tries to win with fraud. If it succeeds, Israel will cease to be a democracy,” the statement said, announcing that Blue and White leaders will hold a press conference Monday afternoon on the issue.
“The citizens of Israel should know this morning that Likud is pouring massive funds from the state budget on the industry of lies and slander against the country’s 20th chief of staff. Every decent citizen of Israel, right or left, must stand against the attempt to destroy our democratic foundations,” the party added, in likely reference to state funds provided to incumbent political parties for election campaigns.
In a statement responding to the report Likud denied any link to the network of accounts or to Haddad.
“Likud is not connected in any way to the network in question,” the party said. “In general, Likud doesn’t operate any network of bots, avatars, fake profiles, and the like. Likud is almost the only party that doesn’t use these means.”
“The digital activities of Likud are completely legal and are reported as appropriate, with full transparency to the state comptroller and the authorized bodies,” the statement continued.
Haddad, it said “is not employed by Likud” and “Likud is connected to him. The great popularity on the internet for Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu is based only on the great achievements of Prime Minister Netanyahu for the citizens of Israel and the the state.”
A statement on behalf of Yair Netanyahu similarly denied any knowledge of the fake account network.
“Yair Netanyahu is not employed in the Likud campaign, doesn’t know people in the network, and is not involved in its activities, in anyway,” the statement, released by a spokesperson for the Netanyahu family, said.
A lawyer for Haddad dismissed the allegations against his client. David Elbaz told Army Radio that Haddad was considering legal action.
Responding to the report, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel said it had asked the attorney general, the police and the state comptroller to investigate the fake accounts.
“The most troubling picture emerges, according to which ostensibly criminal elements united with the sole purpose of misleading the public and diverting the election results, with the intention of deceiving and influencing broad public opinion,” the movement said in a statement.
The election has so far been plagued by allegations of fake news being spread via social media, specifically backing Netanyahu, spread by both bots (automated messengers) and trolls (people, sometimes paid, who spread inflammatory material).
Last week a media company reported that fake news had hit a new high with most of it favorable toward Netanyahu and unfavorable toward Gantz.
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.
Responding to calls to increase transparency over online campaigns, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer, the head of the Central Elections Committee, has said that the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods), which date back to 1959, “screams out” to be updated.
The Likud party has, however, resisted all attempts at amendments to make it do so, halting a bill before its last plenary vote and becoming the only party, in January, to reject a plea from Melcer to apply basic transparency standards to online campaigning.
Sue Surkes and AP contributed to this report.