'15-30 percent of comments on Israeli news sites are fake'

Sockpuppet nation: How fake commenters and other online ploys skew what you read

‘Online reputation management’ industry is thriving in Israel, gaming Google’s algorithm to boost the prominence of websites, paying trolls to post, and more

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image of a hacker, via Shutterstock.
Illustrative image of a hacker, via Shutterstock.

Last month prominent Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker published an article in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz titled “Netanyahu’s Army,” which claimed that the prime minister’s Likud party pays sockpuppets (people using false online identities) and trolls to plant fake comments online praising Likud members and denigrating the party’s rivals.

“Likud is not the only party that uses these techniques,” he wrote, “but it seems it is a step or two ahead of every other party. In general, Netanyahu has over the years developed an impressive arsenal of political attack weapons that has a deterrent effect on almost every other politician.”

The article created a small stir among the Israeli public. It had recently been revealed by US media that Russian operatives using fake social media profiles last year tried to influence the outcome of the US presidential election. Now an Israeli reporter was asserting that similar tactics are being used here in Israel. Several readers commenting on the article called Drucker delusional or a liar; other commenters accused the doubters of being paid trolls themselves.

Do paid trolls really exist in Israel? And is the Israeli Right, as Drucker claimed, leading the field in deploying them? The Times of Israel set out to check.

“Have you ever been a paid troll or know anyone who worked in that capacity?” we asked in an online forum.

“This is a thing?” responded one commenter.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that this post was a troll attempt,” wrote another. “Are you certain that there are paid trolls out there? … I’d never even considered it.”

“I keep being told that I must be getting paid by George Soros’s International Liberal Jewish Conspiracy, but the checks never arrive,” wrote a third.

But after several days’ search, a number of individuals came forward to affirm that there most definitely is a paid sockpuppet industry in Israel, and to reveal some of its secrets and those of the wider field of online manipulation.

Well-maintained fake profiles

On Yavin, the founder and CEO of a company called Online Performance Ltd, said there is a social media manipulation industry in Israel and he is part of it, although his company stops short of practices he considers unethical, like creating sockpuppets or commenting under a fake name.  The industry, Yavin said, is called “online reputation management,” and he agreed to share with The Times of Israel how it works and the lengths to which some of his colleagues will go.

“It makes sense that most of the public doesn’t realize how pervasive ORM is,” he explained. “My best guess is that the field is about a decade old but has taken off in the last 3-4 years. And there is a guerrilla marketing aspect to it,” he added, noting that for an ORM campaign to be effective, it is better if internet users don’t know it’s happening.

Yavin said that each ORM company decides for itself what its boundaries are and some have no problem with creating armies of fake profiles to try to influence online discussion.

On Yavin, founder and CEO of Online Perfomance Ltd (Courtesy)

“Some people maintain their fake profiles for months or years. They do it so well it’s almost impossible to know they are fake.”

Yavin said that ORM has pervaded Israel’s internet space to the point where “at least 15 percent of comments on Israeli news sites, and possibly as many as to 25-30 percent, are fake. Articles of a political nature are most likely to attract paid trolls — not just right-wing commenters, he added, but those of every political persuasion.

“To the extent that a political party has more funding, you will see more paid trolls on their behalf. There are some political parties in Israel that have double or triple the funds of others,” he said, indicating that Israel’s larger parties are more likely to engage in the practice.

Yavin is shy about naming his clients, but lists some of the services he provides for them — including cultivating them as thought leaders in their field, content marketing, creating highly shareable videos, and taking part in online forums like Quora, where his clients can show off their expertise. But the two most important aspects of online reputation management are SEO (search engine optimization) on sites like Google, and social media campaigns.

When clients come to him, Yavin will often create and promote Facebook pages on their behalf as well as pay social media influencers — millennials who have managed to acquire a large following on Instagram or Twitter or Vine — to write about them.

As for SEO — the practice of boosting one’s prominence on Google by gaming the search engine’s algorithm — almost all Israeli politicians do it, Yavin said. If you Google the name of a Knesset member, Yavin estimates about half of the first page of results are likely to be there as a result of SEO manipulation.

“It’s about 50 percent of the results according to my personal knowledge, with the caveat that I did not check every Knesset member,” he said.

Asked whether politicians in Israel employ “troll armies,” such as those widely reported to exist in Russia or China, Yavin said, “I’ve seen it all: operations with one employee, 12 employees or 100 or more. The last operation was a political organization but I can’t comment beyond that.”

Not just politicians but anyone with a profit motive hires ORM firms, he stressed.

Most people have a misperception about Google, that the first page of results are there because they’re supposed to be there. In fact, SEO specialists are constantly competing with each other, and the better ones get their clients onto the first page of search results

“In many industries, most organic search results are SEO results: These include academic studies, lawyers, investments of most kinds, e-commerce, banking related issues such as mortgages, loans and finance.”

In fact, said Yavin, most people have no idea just how pervasive this practice is.

“Most people have a misperception about Google, that the first page of results are there because they’re supposed to be there. In fact, SEO specialists are constantly competing with each other, and the better ones get their clients onto the first page of search results.”

Yavin prides himself on his company’s expertise in SEO and gave a brief explanation of how it’s done.

“First of all you need to know how to find relevant keywords and use them in content. You also need to make sure your website is fully optimized and does not have errors that will cause Google to like it less. You need to know what kind of content to write and publish on your website so that Google likes your website more. And the most important aspect of SEO is link-building — getting other sites to link to yours. That’s very hard work, but our company has developed special link-building techniques over the years.”

Yavin acknowledges that the results of his SEO and social media work may mean his clients come across as if they enjoy more popularity and support than they do in reality.

Asked if this kind of work is detrimental to democracy, he replied, “I do understand why online reputation management can be taken as something that is wrong. If I compare it to so many other things that companies and politicians are doing, I don’t think it is such a bad thing — with the exception of fake profiles, which I am opposed to. I do not have any problem with people getting paid for a social media post if they use their own name. That is the world we live in, and it’s the same as if you paid a presenter to do a commercial on television or radio.”

Fighting back against fake

Yossef Daar, a co-founder at Cyabra, an Israeli company that specializes in detecting fake social media activity, told The Times of Israel that he used to head what he called a “business intelligence firm” that did ORM-type work before he and his co-founders realized that organizations actually need a way to combat the kind of work business intelligence specialists like themselves were involved in.

According to Daar, there are 140 million fake accounts on Facebook, 48 million bots on Twitter and 38 million fake users on LinkedIn worldwide. Organizations that are the targets of social media disinformation campaigns, he warned, can suffer tremendous damage without realizing why.

Yossef Daar, co-founder of Cyabra (Courtesy)

“Let’s say you own a supermarket chain, and 400 customer complaints against a particular store were fake. It would help you a lot to know that. Our company can determine which social media profiles are fake and even figure out who is pulling the strings behind the scenes.”

Daar said it is common for large European brands to employ troll armies to malign each other. In Israel, he said, politicians do the same.

“But there isn’t one side of the political map that uses these methods. Everyone does it.”

By way of example, Daar looked at a Times of Israel op-ed entitled “When Netanyahu walked eyes wide open into disaster,” from July 24, 2017. Using his company’s algorithm, he said he found at least five fake profiles commenting on the article, and then stopped counting.

“I stopped checking after five fake profiles, but it seems as though there are more there. Several of these profiles contained ad hominem attacks against the writer himself.”

Looking at a second op-ed, Daar found fake profiles that were both critical and supportive of the author’s claims.

One of the most pernicious examples of paid sockpuppets being used in contemporary Israel, Daar said, is when those deploying them actively seek to harm their targets, not just influence an audience’s buying habits or political views.

The Times of Israel recently heard from a member of Israel’s Bitcoin and cryptocurrency community who became alarmed when he noticed unscrupulous entrepreneurs, some of them from Israel’s binary options industry, getting involved in cryptocurrency and launching initial coin offerings. Initial coin offerings are an innovative form of crowdfunding for startups, but can be abused by fraudsters who have no actual product under development but seek to run a “pump and dump” scheme.

To this fraudulent end, stealth marketing is instrumental. “They use sockpuppets on social media, and bots on online forums,” the source said of the suspected fraudulent coin issuers. “They pay journalists for favorable coverage. Some PR companies can change IPs quickly and appear to be coming from multiple countries. It isn’t just an Israeli thing; it’s what aggressive online marketing looks like these days.”

Fake profiles and the threat to democracy

Psychologists have observed that most people have an unconscious resistance to persuasive intent and that our mental defenses go up when we detect advertising or propaganda.

Advertisers know this, and that is why they employ stealth marketing techniques — disguising a pitch or a slogan as the sincere point of view of a disinterested person so that the target doesn’t realize they’re being pitched to.

Yavin, of Online Performance Limited, acknowledged that stealth marketing can often be more effective than marketing that is transparent in its intent. This is the idea behind offline versions of stealth marketing, like product placements in movies and native advertising in newspapers and magazines.

“Advertising is more effective when people believe it’s real,” said Yavin. “As a moral person I would prefer that all advertisements be labeled, but there’s an arms race in the marketing world where if you don’t say it’s marketing you have an advantage.”

Illustrative image of bitcoins (Courtesy BitsofGold)

The contemporary German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas has written that in order for democracies to function well they need a robust “public sphere,” a social space where people voluntarily come together as equals to engage in rational debate in pursuit of truth and the common good. In an ideal world, the public sphere acts as a check on the powers of government and holds up its policies for public scrutiny. Habermas also identified two types of communication that exist in modern societies: the communicative and the strategic. In the communicative mode, people try to discern the truth and reach mutual understanding. The strategic mode involves trying to get another person to do something you want without their being aware of your intentions. In a healthy society, the communicative mode takes priority over the strategic mode, which is parasitical on it.

Is the internet a “public sphere” where people can come together and communicate in an open and sincere way that fosters democracy?

In a 2015 New York Times article, reporter Adrian Chen wrote that journalists and activists in Russia, at least, no longer feel that way. There is a “dawning sense, among the Russian journalists and activists I spoke with,” he wrote, “that the Internet is no longer a natural medium for political opposition… By working every day to spread Kremlin propaganda, the paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction.”

Similarly, American Media Studies professor Mara Einstein argued in her 2016 book “Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing and the Covert World of the Digital Sell” that the days are gone when consumers could put pressure on large corporations through social media.

“Negative consumer conversations rarely have a long-term effect on brands,” she wrote, because brands have become adept at controlling social media conversations.

“Given our inability to effect significant change, why do we keep on posting and tweeting? The answer is simple. For a brief time, we could use social media to make a difference. But not anymore, not in the consumer marketplace. Unfortunately, that reality doesn’t seem to have caught up with us yet.”

Given the pervasive but hidden work of paid trolls who are trying to manipulate us, can we trust anything we read online?

“I am definitely telling everyone to be very careful about what they read online,” Yavin told The Times of Israel.

Asked how he gets information he needs to make important decisions, like medical decisions or whom to vote for, Yavin replied, “I go to Google and do a search.”

But aren’t many of the search results manipulated?

“When I go into a website it takes me 15-20 seconds to know if the result I clicked on was promoted by an SEO specialist or not. Is it really organic or fake organic? But for people who aren’t SEO experts, I agree, it’s difficult to know.”

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