A man Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paraded in front of the media on Monday as proof that his online supporters were “real people,” and not “bots,” is a far-right political activist with a history of lashing out against the prime minister’s rivals, journalists, and public officials, with racist and homophobic statements.
Giora Ezra, who runs a a pro-Netanyahu Twitter account under the moniker “Captain George,” assured journalists at a press conference alongside the prime minister that he was personally in charge of his account, in response to a watchdog report that claimed to uncover a network of fake Twitter accounts backing Netanyahu.
Shortly after the press conference, held at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, dozens of disparaging statements made by Ezra, a 64-year-old real estate agent from the central city of Yavneh, began to emerge.
Last month, he expressed support for the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling Arabs from Israel and creating a Jewish theocracy.
“Kahane was right this entire time,” Ezra wrote in February. “The leftists are lying to us.”
Kahane’s Kach party was outlawed from the Knesset in the 1980s for racism and declared a terrorist group by Israel and the United States. Last month, Netanyahu was widely criticized for striking an election deal with the Otzma Yehudit party, whose leaders call themselves Kahane’s disciples.
“Kahane should never have been outlawed,” Ezra posted several days later. “It’s Meretz and the Arab parties that need to be banned.”
In March, Ezra called Channel 13 journalist Barak Ravid a “dog” and a “son of a bitch.” Last August, he referred to Channel 12’s Amnon Abramovich as “a stinking dog” and “a crappy, shit-smelling journalist.” His Twitter feed is littered with insults directed at other Israeli reporters whom he has called “disgusting leftists” and “enemies of Israel.”
In other tweets, Ezra made disparaging comments about Netanyahu’s main challenger, Benny Gantz, including sexual references, and widely disseminated a news report that claimed the former IDF chief saw a therapist following his discharge from the military in 2015. Gantz has denied this.
Ezra’s tweets also contained claims made by the Likud campaign repeatedly during the election, namely that Gantz and his centrist Blue and White party would usher in a weak “leftist” government with the help of Arab parties who are “seeking Israel’s destruction.”
“It’s better to have Jewish supports of Kahane in the Knesset than the Arabs, who will serve as a voting bloc that will lead to the destruction of Israel,” he posted in February.
Ezra used the homophobic term “pillow-biter” to disparage the “elitist” former Israel Police commissioner Roni Alsheich in March.
In various other posts from recent months, Ezra called Labor party leader Avi Gabbay a “fucking asshole,” accused Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg of being a spy for the Palestinian Authority, and claimed that “everyone knows [Gantz] is a paranoid loser who is the opposite of a politician.”
Ezra was catapulted into the spotlight when, on Monday afternoon, Netanyahu convened a press conference to address a report that exposed an alleged network of fake Twitter accounts disseminating pro-Netanyahu messages ahead of next week’s elections.
The report, which was compiled by Israeli social media watchdog Big Bots Project and reported by The New York Times and Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, identified 154 accounts using false names, and another 400 accounts that were suspected to be fake.
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.
Researchers said it was unclear who was operating the network, but said the suspicious accounts relayed tens of thousands of tweets and garnered over 2.5 million engagements.
Like the others, Ezra’s account was largely inactive before elections were announced in December.
Big Bots Project found no direct connection between the network and the Likud campaign or the prime minister, though it said it “appeared to operate in coordination with the party and Mr. Netanyahu’s reelection campaign.”
At Monday’s press conference, Netanyahu dismissed the report sarcastically, saying he had thought it was an April Fool’s Day prank. Standing alongside Ezra, he called it a “false libel” by the media based on a “fake investigation.”
“Almost all of the examples, perhaps all of them, turned out to be real people. They have a name, they have a face, they have families, and the worst thing: they have opinions of their own. Independent people,” Netanyahu said. “Not one of them is fake.”
Ezra also spoke to journalists, saying, “I woke up this morning and I found out that I’m a bot. As you can all see, I’m not a bot, I write from the heart. I see the injustices being done to the prime minister and I have to speak out.”
Though the researchers had not claimed the accounts were not run by real people, three other Twitter users featured in the newspaper reports spoke to media outlets in the course of Monday to prove they were real.
Ziv Knobler told Army Radio that “nothing is organized. We are a group of people who believe in the way of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
The reports were swiftly seized upon by Blue and White, which accused the prime minister of using fake news to sway the upcoming April 9 election.
At a press conference, Gantz accused Netanyahu of “leading an information terrorism campaign against the citizens of Israel.”