Hundreds of Iranian bots are working to increase social and political divisions among Israelis and drive a radicalization of political discourse online ahead of the country’s April 9 elections, according to a report by the US-based technology firm Vocativ.
Released Thursday to the Ynet news site, the report said it found at least 350 accounts on major social media sites that appeared to be automated, coordinated and carrying messages with links to the Countdown 2040 website, an English-language Iranian site that “counts down” to Israel’s predicted destruction in the year 2040 by Iran’s supreme leader.
The posts may have been seen by as many as half a million Israelis, Vocativ said.
“The discourse the bots are trying to create tries to magnify the fractures in Israeli society and weaken unity,” said Vocativ’s founder, Mati Kochavi. “It looks like they know that our strength lies in our unity. In the US and Europe, bots that emphasized the divisions [in society] were very influential in the political campaigns.”
The company specializes in algorithms that are deployed to the web and are able to identify unique trends and trending videos. In the case of the purported Iranian bots, the company’s algorithms searched for social media accounts that posted at precisely regular intervals, compared language used in posts to build a map of connected accounts, and worked to identify the origins of the messages.
The accounts in question ramped up activity after Israel’s cabinet announced on December 24 that the country would be heading to elections. The accounts joined Facebook and Telegram groups, increasing their posting pace. Just 50 of the identified accounts were operating before that date; 300 came online immediately afterward. The existing accounts saw their posting frequency increase by over 750 percent.
The bots have responded to events and election news in ways the company said were intended to “influence” the public debate in Israel. Their content focused on points of contention and social divides among Israelis.
Vocativ flagged the accounts to the networks hosting them, including Facebook, Twitter and Telegram, Ynet reported.
The accounts spent much of the past year discussing domestic Israeli issues, but in recent months have turned their focus to Iran’s presence in Syria, an issue that has drawn a great deal of attention in Israeli media.
It isn’t the first time Iran has been identified as a source for covert online attempts to influence Israeli political discourse.
In September, Israeli cybersecurity firm ClearSky said it had uncovered three Iran-run fake Hebrew and Arabic news sites targeting Israelis, as well as a score of fake social media accounts.
One of the sites was the Hebrew-language Tel Aviv Times, which engages in “distorting news,” and the other two are Arabic language news outlets that promote the Islamic Republic.
Tel Aviv Times had been operating since 2013, according to the announcement, and had about 66,000 monthly views, the vast majority of them from Israel, according to SimilarWeb. The site carried articles ClearSky said were plagiarized from mainstream Israeli news sites, though the headlines and crucial paragraphs were changed to support Iran’s agenda.
According to ClearSky, the sites and accounts are part of an Iranian “worldwide disinformation infrastructure that was set up over the years by the Iranians and includes over 100 active news and media sites in 24 countries and 29 languages.”
A researcher for the firm said Iran in recent years has expanded its efforts to promote its agenda online, from an initial focus on countries in the Middle East to any nation in which it has an interest.
“In our assessment the purpose of setting up this infrastructure is to influence public opinion in target countries and likely to send targeted messages to activists and supporters of Iran,” the company said in a Hebrew-language statement at the time.
Last August, Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube shuttered hundreds of accounts that were allegedly tied to Iranian misinformation efforts.
And earlier last year, US firm FireEye said it had uncovered a “suspected influence operation” appearing to originate in Iran targeting audiences in the US, UK, Latin America, and the Middle East. FireEye said the goal of the campaign was to “promote political narratives in line with Iranian interests. These narratives include anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes.”
The accounts include faux news sources with Hebrew-language names like “Hot News” and “Uncensored News.” They began to expand their reach with bots pretending to be ordinary Israelis sharing their posts, followed prominent Israelis so that some of those would follow back, and slowly pieced together a broad following among Hebrew-language social media users.