Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a broadside on Monday against his rivals in the Blue and White party, accusing them of seeing Likud supporters as “bots” rather than “real people,” following reports exposing a network of pro-Netanyahu Twitter accounts that are allegedly operated under false names.
The prime minister was responding to a report by Israeli social media watchdog Big Bots Project that was picked up by both The New York Times and Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Monday morning. According to the report, researchers have identified a network that included 154 accounts using false names and another 400 accounts suspected of being fake, according to a report. 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 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 reelection campaign.”
At a press conference in Jerusalem, the prime minister introduced a middle-aged man identified as Giora, who runs an account supportive of Netanyahu under the moniker “Captain George.”
“Are you real? Are you a bot?” the prime minister asked sarcastically. Giora smiled back at him. “Giora says what he thinks. Giora says what he wants. Nobody is ‘operating’ him,” Netanyahu continued.
“Brazenly and condescendingly, they are lying and saying you aren’t real,” Netanyahu said of Blue and White and the media. “Today they published a front-page story that all the support for us is fictitious, and they brought some examples to prove it. Nearly all the examples turned out to be real people.”
He said the report — which was compiled in cooperation with the Israeli Alliance, an Israeli liberal-leaning organization — was funded by leftists including George Soros, and was published by the “house newspaper” of Blue and White’s Yair Lapid, a reference to Yedioth Ahronoth.
The report did not say the accounts were not run by real people. Still, three other Twitter users featured in the report spoke to the 103FM radio station to prove they were real.
“They have names, they have faces, they have families, and worst of all, they have views of their own,” declared Netanyahu. “None of them are fake.”
He also accused Blue and White of operating “an army of online bots” on top of the “bots [working for it] in the media.”
“They’re running the most deceitful campaign ever,” said Netanyahu, berating the centrist party leaders for his and his running mates’ “unbelievable hypocrisy.”
Though the report did not allege the Twitter accounts were automated, Netanyahu suggested it underlined that Gantz and his number 2, Yair Lapid, as well as the media, view right-wing Likud voters as subhuman.
“For four years, the media lies to you from morning till night. They silence and defame right-wing figures. They called us ‘chah’chahim,’ amulet-kissers, and now bots,” continued Netanyahu.
The first term was an allusion to a famous incident ahead of the 1981 election in which Israeli TV personality Dudu Topaz branded Likud voters “chah’chahim” at a Labor party rally, drawing a fiery counter-speech from then-Likud leader Menachem Begin. The second referred to a speech by artist Yair Garbuz ahead of the 2015 Knesset elections, in which he referred to right-wing Israelis as “amulet-kissers.”
Netanyahu continued, “It won’t work because you, the citizens, are not bots. A million Likud voters are not bots.”
The prime minister also said his party is nearly the “only campaign that doesn’t operate bots.”
Blue and White “has an army of bots online that defame us all the time, Likud, my family, me. It’s unbelievable hypocrisy,” said Netanyahu, adding that Likud had filed a police complaint against the rival party. “It’s just a huge lie, such a transparent lie.”
In a response to Netanyahu’s statements, Blue and White alleged that the prime minister had funded and operated the string of fake accounts — a claim not made by the original report.
“Netanyahu is trying to steal the elections. There has never been a prime minister who lied and defamed so much. Let him explain where the millions of shekels that funded this network of lies came from. And how he paid for it without reporting it,” claimed Blue and White.
The network of accounts in question 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 its ownership 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.”
Several other Twitter users mentioned in the report have stepped forward to identify themselves.
“I was always sure that I’m a real person, but this morning I found out that I am a bot,” Ziv Knobler told 103FM.
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.