Twitter cracks down on pro-Netanyahu 'troll army'
Twitter says it has "taken action" after an Israeli watchdog exposed an alleged bot network spreading propaganda in support of Prime Minister Binyamin 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.
Israeli cyber watchdog the Big Bots Protect 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.
With just a week until the national vote, the pro-Netanyahu bot network discovery 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."
In a bizarre publicity stunt on Monday, Netanyahu brought Likud supporter Giora Ezra, 63, to a press briefing in a bid to dismiss accusations his party has deployed an army of internet bots to help get him reelected.
"Giora says what he thinks, nobody is operating him, it's one huge lie.""Say, Giora, are you a real person? Are you a robot?" Netanyahu asked with a smile.
"Say, Giora, are you a real person? Are you a robot?" Netanyahu asked with a smile.
"Giora says what he thinks, nobody is operating him, it's one huge lie."
"I woke up this morning and discovered that I'm a robot," Ezra said as Netanyahu chuckled.
"I write what I write from my heart," he said.
But the premier's attempt to present living evidence of his popular support after widespread coverage of the allegations soon appeared to backfire as a spotlight was shone on Ezra's online activities.
It turned out Ezra, who writes on Twitter under the handle "Captain George", has a rich history of abusive posts against Netanyahu's opponents and journalists, including homophobic slurs.
Despite no official response from Likud, party member Yoav Kisch admitted it should have checked out "Captain George" and his history of tweets before presenting him to the public, adding that the stunt was "a mistake".
Israelis will head to the polls on April 9. Netanyahu, 69, is seeking a fifth term in office despite also facing potential corruption charges.
Likud's main rival, Blue and White, has consistently trumped Likud in opinion polls, although Netanyahu is seen as standing a better chance of putting together a coalition government under Israel's proportional representation electoral system.