Israel's Netanyahu used fake accounts to promote election campaign
An Israeli watchdog group has uncovered a network of hundreds of social media accounts used to smear opponents of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ahead of next week’s election.
The accounts have been used to amplify the messages of Netanyahu's party and his alliance with far-right groups, according to a report to be released on Monday by the watchdog group the Big Bots Project, which exposes malicious use of social media.
The messages posted on the network's social media accounts, many of them fake, are frequently reposted by prominent Likud campaign officials and by the prime minister's son, Yair Netanyahu, according to the report.
Big Bots Project found, however, no direct links between the network and Netanyahu, his party or his son.
Nevertheless, the watchdog said the network appeared to operate in coordination with the party and Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.
The network relies on manipulation and dissemination of fake news, by sending thousands of tweets a day.
"The network operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumors," the report said.
According to the report, the network's activity has multiplied by almost 500 percent since the election was called in December.
The network "is mobilized at climactic moments for Netanyahu, such as the announcement of the indictment against him", confirms the watchdog group.
The network may breach Israeli laws governing elections, campaign finance, privacy and taxation.
According to the report, which was written by Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam as well as founders of the Big Bots Project, 154 of the accounts in the network use fake names and another 400 accounts are suspected of being fake.
The accounts are operated by people, not bots. This makes it harder to detect the perpetrators who write their posts in Hebrew.
The post obtained nearly 2.5 million hits in a country with only 8.7 million citizens.
Big Bots Project's investigation was funded by an Israeli online crowdfunding site, Drove. The liberal-leaning organisation, Israeli Alliance, also contributed to these findings.
In reaction to the report, Jonathan Urich, a spokesman for the Likud party, denied any links to the network.
"All of the Likud's digital activity is entirely authentic and is based on the great support of the citizens of Israel for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the great achievements of the Likud," he said on Sunday.
Netanyahu has come under renewed scrutiny in recent days over his handling of submarine deals with German company ThyssenKrupp to boost the stock of a company in which he had owned shares.
Early last week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has given a rare and unscheduled television interview to combat allegations of improper behaviour from his opponents, the leaders of the centrist Blue and White electoral alliance.
His rivals have repeatedly suggested that Netanyahu may have benefited financially from the deal.
"I have to smash the wave of lies spread by (Benny) Gantz and (Yair) Lapid and (Moshe) Yaalon and (Gabi) Ashkenazi," Netanyahu said of his rivals.
Netanyahu hopes to win the 9 April election, for fourth consecutive term if won. However, he is facing a strong challenge from Benny Gantz, a retired army chief.