Iran is suspected of setting up a social media network targeting Israeli nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jews in order to encourage violence against Arab Israelis and stoke tensions in the country, according to a Thursday report by the BBC.
According to the Israeli disinformation watchdog FakeReporter, which uncovered the group’s suspected Iranian origin, its goal was to help fuel “religious war” by amplifying “fear, hatred and chaos.”
According to the report, the “Aduk” or “strictly religious” group presented itself as a “virtual religious union for the religious public.”
The network also redistributed articles and posts that supported far-right Israeli politicians, encouraged protests and fostered anti-government and anti-Arab sentiment. One of the listed profiles managed to garner thousands of followers.
“We see this network rise up following the events in May, when Israel was at one of the lowest points in its history in the relations between Jewish and Arab citizens,” said FakeReporter chief executive Achiya Schatz.
In one case, the network reposted a video of a confrontation in December between far-right Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir, who was armed, and a car parking attendant, adding the comment: “It’s a shame he didn’t give him one in the head.”
Other posts by the suspected Iran-based network and its administrators included repeated calls to attend anti-government protests in Israel, retweeting a post by Ben Gvir where he called for “targeted killings” of Arab Israeli “inciters” in towns that witnessed a flare-up during the riots last May, reposting pictures accusing the coalition of being controlled by Muslims due to the inclusion of the Ra’am party, and encouraging anti-police sentiment among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.
According to the BBC, the network made extensive efforts to look genuine, creating a page for a fictitious ultra-Orthodox bakery in Israel, and in another case stealing the online identity of a Russian Haredi man who died four years ago.
His sister alerted Facebook after a picture of him was taken by the network, claiming to be “Ariel Levi,” the administrator of the Aduk news network.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank told the BBC that young ultra-Orthodox Israelis may be more vulnerable to foreign interference due to low “digital literacy,” adding that many more are now experiencing the internet for the first time.
“This community is very conservative and doesn’t have the experience of 70 years of TV,” she said.
“Any resentfulness towards Israeli society, or far-right extremism, or anti-Arab, anti-Muslim feeling [can be exploited]. This kind of community is not prepared to cope with fake news or digital manipulation,” she said.
Facebook and Twitter said they deactivated the group’s pages and associated profiles after being approached by FakeReporter, though the network remains active on the messaging channel Telegram.
Facebook said the network was part of attempts to revitalize a previous “small Iranian influence operation” the company took down last March.
The BBC approached the groups’ administrator pages, but they did not respond.
The Iranian embassy in London also did not respond to requests for comment.
An Israeli security source quoted by the BBC said the online profiles had similar characteristics to previous Iranian disinformation activity on social media.
There have been a number of alleged campaigns by Iran to increase social and political divisions among Israelis and drive a radicalization of political discourse online.