Twitter suspends 61 ‘fake news’ accounts from overseas aimed at Israelis

Twitter suspends 61 ‘fake news’ accounts from overseas aimed at Israelis

343 ‘foreign manipulation campaigns’ nixed by Twitter in election season so far, Foreign Ministry says; Facebook denies its transparency rules, taking effect in March, are too late

In this February 8, 2018, file photo, the logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
In this February 8, 2018, file photo, the logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Twitter has suspended a new batch of 61 accounts, with a total of 28,041 followers, linked to foreign fake news manipulation campaigns aimed at the Israeli public, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

This brings to 343 the number of suspicious bot accounts aimed at Israel suspended by the social networking company since late December, when elections were announced for April 9, the ministry’s London-based head of R&D, Elad Ratson, posted on his Twitter account Monday.

Most of the fake accounts were written in English, with three in Arabic and one in German.

The most popular, with just under 16,000 followers, took the name of Stripes Girl.

A knowledgeable source told the Times of Israel earlier this month that Twitter had good relations with Israeli government officials, law enforcement and NGOs, and that while it could not be an “arbiter of truth,” it was monitoring online traffic for fake accounts and malicious bots and would be “doing more work” as Israel’s elections approached.

Worldwide, Twitter takes down an astonishing ten million problematic accounts each week and challenges more than half a million suspicious logins every day, the source said.

In October, the company released to the public what it said was the entire archive of tweets and media that appeared to have come from the Russian government-linked Internet Research Agency and sources in Iran since 2016.

Bots are pieces of computer code that look like the accounts of real people and that suddenly appear in large numbers to support or delegitimize targets or to spread disinformation in an attempt to sow general discord or distrust toward governments, news organizations or other institutions.

They tend to take bios from real people and profile pictures from Google.  To the untrained eye, these fakes are extremely hard to spot.

Because of their ability to attack, defend, like, comment, share or retweet in huge numbers, they are able to amplify messages and persuade voters of “their” point of view because human beings are more likely to give credence to a message that has hundreds or thousands of likes.

A fake press release published on a hoax website designed to look like that of Harvard University’s Belfer Center, on November 14, 2018. (Screen capture)

The use of bots and other online tools to spread disinformation — particularly via Facebook — first came to light with allegations that Russia used them to meddle in the 2016 US Presidential elections — a charge the Russians deny.

That election exposed the work of the British firm Cambridge Analytica, which acquired data from tens of millions of Facebook users and then developed algorithms (mathematical rules) to micro-target voters with personalized political messaging from fake accounts.

It focused the spotlight on just how much information social media companies collect about everyone using social media platforms.

Facebook transparency — too little, too late for this election?

Facebook announced on Monday that it would make political advertisements more transparent ahead of Israel’s elections.

However, the new measure will only come into force in March, in the final weeks of the campaign. Announcing the move, the company’s Israel headquarters did not say when exactly in March. A global Facebook statement said that such tools would be introduced in the EU “in late March” and in Israel “before” the elections.

A spokesperson for Facebook Israel insisted the move was being implemented “early, not late,” in the election campaign given the amount of preparation work required, which included checking local legal requirements. By the end of June, according to the company, it will be rolled out worldwide.

The company will require that all ads dealing with national or political issues carry clear information as to who paid for them, and that the identity and location of the person or people behind them are verified. Those who refuse to provide the necessary information will not be allowed to advertise.

The ads will be stored for up to seven years in a publicly accessible library.

Ad transparency of this kind was introduced in the US and later in the UK in the wake of the US election fiasco.

Prof. Karine Nahon, president of the Israel Internet Association and an associate professor at Washington University and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, (Screenshot)

But after Facebook’s announcement on introducing the measure in Israel, Prof. Karine Nahon, president of the Israel Internet Association and an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, warned that while the company would provide a database of the paid advertisements, Facebook continues to block academics from researching any further, on the pretext that this is to protect users.

“This means that in practice, public transparency is limited and the ability to understand the data is minimal,” Nahon tweeted Monday. And who would decide what was “political,” she asked rhetorically.

Nahon, who in August — long before elections were announced — warned Justice Hanan Melcer, the current chairman of the Central Elections Committee, about attempts to influence the outcome of elections in Israel — added that the database would contain information about paid ads only.

Israeli online elections ads unregulated

It remains unclear whether those who post fake ads on Facebook or elsewhere online will face any legal consequences. That is because Israel’s law on election propaganda does not currently extend to the internet.

Current protection from fake news and disinformation mainly comes from the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, which was written before the advent of the internet and primarily deals with advertising on billboards, radio, planes and boats. Amendments since then have extended the law to TV, regional radio stations and published election surveys, but not yet to the internet.

Former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on November 21, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In November 2017, a committee chaired by former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch and tasked with reviewing election regulations and campaigning presented a proposal not only to extend the election propaganda law to online content but also to give the Central Elections Committee the legal power to prevent online manipulation.

A bill based on that proposal is currently being held up in Knesset committee by the Likud party, with sources with direct knowledge of the legislative process telling The Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had personally ordered it be shelved.

The bill, which requires only one more plenary vote to become law, would specifically clamp down on fake news by compelling the authors of any paid political content, including comments, to identify themselves publicly — a move that would apply both to the internet and to more traditional campaign materials, such as posters.

Earlier this month, the Central Elections Committee ordered the Likud party to commit to passing legislation to extend the current election propaganda laws to include online content, or alternatively, to agree to an accord between all parties forcing them to clearly claim authorship of all their online campaign materials.

Presenting a petition to the committee, Adv. Shachar Ben Meir said that passing the law would provide a vital service to voters before the elections by giving them the tools to spot fake news and campaign propaganda.

Adv. Shachar Ben Meir. (Facebook)

“We simply want the public to be able to know when they are faced with campaign material and to know who is behind it. We are not asking to get involved in the content, just for it to be clear who is behind it,” he said.

While representatives from every other major party said that they would immediately support passing the proposal to give the committee such tools, Avi Halevy, the Likud party’s chief legal adviser, said it was “not realistic” to push through such broad legislation “under duress.”

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