Since the start of the current election campaign an average of just under a million Israeli internet users have been exposed every week to misinformation about Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival in the upcoming elections, a media company reported Thursday.
During one week, fake news denigrating the Blue and White party chief reached a peak potential of two million viewers, equivalent to one in five Israelis.
The most widely distributed item of fake news between December 25, when elections were announced, and April 3, asserted that Gantz has not ruled out the possibility of entering into a coalition with the Arab parties, and that he is being supported by the Palestinian Authority.
Helped along by shares from the official pages of some politicians, this allegation appeared 5,559 times in various forms across social networks and reached between 1.5 and two million internet users.
The findings were published by the Vocativ media company, headed by Israeli tech investor Mati Kochavi, which has issued weekly summaries of fake news reports since January 8.
Over the entire period, Vocativ analyzed some 2.8 million social media posts, tweets, comments, headlines, forum responses and mentions of politicians online, of which some 900 items came from Facebook and 1.4 million from Twitter.
Between the first week of February and the last week of March, false reports saw an increase of 89 percent.
The second most popular smear — with a potential viewing audience of up to 1.3 million — was that Gantz is mentally unstable and is taking psychiatric drugs, Vocativ reported.
Promoted by the Likud party as part of its campaign that Gantz is not fit to serve as prime minister, and strenuously denied by Gantz and Blue and White, this claim appeared on social networks before being picked up by the mainstream media.
Another fake item, which recurred 4,655 times, charged that Gantz’s wife is a member of the left-wing Machsom Watch, a women’s group which monitors the activities of IDF soldiers manning checkpoints in the West Bank and films alleged human rights abuses.
An unsubstantiated claim charging that Gantz betrayed his wife by conducting extramarital affairs with subordinates in the army appeared 2,701 times, according to Vocativ’s research.
Netanyahu, Vocativ found, was targeted by fake news from both the right and left.
He was the third biggest target of fake news, after Gantz and Blue and White’s Yair Lapid.
The leading narratives promoted and amplified by bots (pieces of computer code), trolls (real people, usually paid to post inciteful material) and online profiles suspected of having been created specifically to spread fake news, included attacks on the media. Some accused Netanyahu of corruption; others said that the cases against the prime minister were a frame-up.
Vocativ found that Netanyahu was the person cited the most by bots, trolls and suspect online profiles, with most of the 335,025 mentions being positive.
Gantz came second, but his mentions were mostly negative and in some cases, even violent.
“With the exception of Netanyahu, most mentions of other politicians were negative,” Vocativ’s report said.
In descending order, these were Blue and White’s Yair Lapid, the New Right’s Naftali Bennett, Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, Blue and White’s Gabi Ashkenazi and Gideon Sa’ar of the Likud.
There was a clear correlation between events of the week and those of the characters targeted, Vocativ found.
For example, Likud MK Sa’ar, widely seen as a potential successor to Netanyahu, was targeted negatively during the Likud primaries, while Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit rose in the fake discourse before and after announcing his intention to indict Netanyahu for criminal wrongdoing in three separate cases against him, including bribery in the far-reaching Bezeq corruption probe, pending a hearing.
Of the social media profiles most active during the whole period, that of “Ronit HaBibist” took first place. Ronit serves as a highly active Likud party mouthpiece mouthing off from the Twitter profile of a real person called Ronit Lev.
Vocativ’s week by week findings have found parallels in a report published earlier this week by the Israeli social media watchdog Big Bots Project that was published by both The New York Times and the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Monday morning.
Researchers Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, helped by other tech experts during a series of hackathons, identified 154 accounts using false names, and another 400 accounts that were suspected to be fake. Researchers said they found over 130,000 tweets from “hundreds of fake or anonymous accounts” without names or profile pictures, which did not identify themselves as linked to Netanyahu’s Likud party. They also identified “hundreds of genuine accounts” backing the premier’s bid for re-election.
Among the targets were journalists and public figures considered hostile to Netanyahu, including Gantz.
The accounts were said to appear to work in coordination, sharing each others’ posts, and in a clear trend, their online activity increased nearly five-fold after the elections were announced.
The Big Bot Project found no direct connection between the network and the Likud campaign, the prime minister, or Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, although the researchers said it “appeared to operate in coordination with the party and Mr. Netanyahu’s reelection campaign.”
It called for the police to investigate the funding of fake social media accounts promoting the prime minister and called for the Central Elections Committee to order “the immediate cessation of this ugly fake news campaign.”
On Tuesday, however, Mandelblit said there was insufficient evidence to show that the accounts were funded by the Likud party and spread election propaganda in violation of electoral law.
Mandelblit’s opinion was included in a letter to Central Elections Committee head and Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer who, on Wednesday, heard the Blue and White party’s petition to have the Likud banned from campaigning on social media.
The Big Bot Project report identified a major figure behind the networks as Yitzhak Haddad, who told a private investigator in a recorded conversation that he was an “undercover activist” for the social media campaign. Haddad told the investigator the initiative promoting Netanyahu involved “a lot of money” and that he was in contact with senior Likud members.
However, at the committee hearing, Haddad denied any links to the Likud party, claiming his Twitter account was a personal one.
Netanyahu hit back by accusing Blue and White of viewing Likud supporters as “bots” rather than “real people,” [the report spoke about fake profiles, not bots] and on Thursday, he turned the tables by accusing his rivals of using bots.
“They are responsible for spreading lies, not us,” he told the Kan public broadcaster in his first radio interview since the week before the 2015 elections.
Vocativ founder Kochavi said the company wanted to explain clearly that fake news was an integral part of the political discourse, “but in the end, people will believe what suits them.”
He added that he was particularly worried by the massive potential harm that could be caused to Israel by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic organizations circulating fake news among naive or apathetic social network users.
This, he said, would be equivalent to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on steroids.”
The “Protocols” was a forged text produced in Russia at the turn of the last century which purports to outline Jewish plans to take over the world. It has been used by anti-Semites throughout the 20th and 21st centuries as justification for their views.