Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, responding to a report about a network of bogus social media users campaigning on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the coming elections, on Monday accused the premier of spreading fake news to sway the vote.
At a press conference, the Blue and White party leader accused Netanyahu of using “info-terror” and trying to “steal the election.”
Gantz’s party also filed a police complaint and urged an investigation into the Likud party on suspicion of breaking election laws.
“The investigations published this morning reveal that Netanyahu is leading an information terrorism campaign against the citizens of Israel,” Gantz said.
Researchers have identified a network that included 154 accounts using fake names and another 400 accounts suspected of being fake, according to a report by Israeli social media watchdog Big Bots Project cited by both the The New York Times and Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Monday morning. The accounts were said to appear to work in coordination, sharing each others’ posts, and in a clear trend, their online activity increased nearly fivefold after the elections were announced in December last year.
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 Gantz and Blue and White as they emerged as the chief competitors to Netanyahu in the coming April 9 elections, the reports 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.
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.”
Blue and White’s number two, MK Yair Lapid, called Netanyahu the “chief troll” and said he “is trying to steal the election.”
“Netanyahu has had enough of running in free elections, so he has decided to cheat,” he said. “Bibi is trying to play the people for fools. Don’t believe anything you hear from Netanyahu in the last week of the elections.”
The researchers said the accounts were run by people 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.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party denied that it was funding such a network.
Despite the fact that the report did not say the accounts were not run by real people, Ziv Knobler and two other Twitter users featured in the report spoke to the 103FM radio station to prove that they were real.
“I was always sure that I’m a real person, but this morning I found out that I am a bot,” Knobler said.
Knobler, whose profile picture for his Twitter account is a photo of US actor Tom Cruise, said Yedioth did not try to contact him to see if he was a real person. He noted that his account has been active since 2010. His authenticity was confirmed by the radio station, which said it saw his national identification card.
Knobler and two other users who were only identified by their first names denied that they were paid for their online activities or that they were part of an organized network.
Knobler said he was considering legal action against Yedioth.
“It is already damaging at a personal level and harms my family,” he said.