Twitter said to take down most fake pro-Netanyahu accounts flagged in report

Twitter said to take down most fake pro-Netanyahu accounts flagged in report

Researcher behind findings on alleged troll network says social media site has removed 258 of the 400 suspicious pages that were flagged

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu answers questions on Twitter Live at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 12, 2016 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu answers questions on Twitter Live at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 12, 2016 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Twitter said Tuesday it has “taken action” after an Israeli watchdog exposed an alleged network of fraudulent social media accounts spreading propaganda in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and smearing his opponents.

Noam Rotem, one of the researchers behind the report, said Tuesday he has seen Twitter shut down 258 of the over 400 automated and fake accounts his team identified.

Twitter did not comment on the number of accounts removed, but said that the platform prohibits fabricated accounts and “has taken action where violations are identified” to ensure healthy dialogue online during election cycles.

With just a week until the national vote, the discovery of the pro-Netanyahu pages jolted Israel’s already turbulent campaign season.

Netanyahu lambasted the report as “libel,” and his challenger Benny Gantz accused him of “trying to steal the election.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK Amir Ohana (center) speak to the media about an alleged fake media campaign, at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 1, 2019. At left is a man identified as Giora who runs the Captain George twitter account. The slogan on the screen above them reads: We won’t let them bring down the Right. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

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 Monday, identified 154 accounts using false names or identities, and another 400 accounts that were suspected to be fake.

Yedioth Ahronoth reported Tuesday that some of the accounts disappeared after the report came out, apparently taken down by their owners.

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.

Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 31, 2019 (Flash90)

Blue and White, an electoral alliance led by Gantz, accused the prime minister of waging “info terror” and using fake news to sway the upcoming April 9 election.

It also filed a police compliant and urged an investigation into Likud on suspicion of breaking election laws.

In a letter Tuesday to the head of the Central Elections Committee, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said there was insufficient evidence to show the accounts were funded by Netanyahu’s Likud party and spread election propaganda in violation of electoral law.

Mandelblit noted the complaint to police was based on the newspaper reports, suggesting there was unlikely sufficient evidence to open a criminal investigation into the social media accounts.

Responding to Blue and White’s accusations, Netanyahu on Monday accused his political rivals of lying and branding Likud voters as “bots,” though the report did not say the accounts were not run by real people.

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