A network of phony social media accounts has been sending out messages in support of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and denigrating Blue and White party head Benny Gantz, according to an investigation by Yediot Acharonot and The New York Times. Operating primarily on Twitter, a network of thousands of accounts – all of them operated by a small group of people – have sent out tens of thousands of messages, which have been seen by over 2.5 million people in Israel.
The Likud has denied any connection to the network, and the individual named as the primary operator of the network has threatened to sue Yediot Acharonot for libel, claiming that he has nothing to do with the matter.
The report is based on a study by Israeli researchers Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, founders of the Big Bots Project, which examines fake news online. According to the researchers, one specific account, known as “Bond,” is at the center of the network -generating messages that are immediately retweeted and redistributed by other members of the network. The activity in the accounts rises and falls with the news cycle – so, for example, when the news broke several weeks ago that there were suspicions that Iranians had hacked Benny Gantz’s cellphone, activity in the accounts shot up, with negative messages about Gantz’s capabilities as a leader spread far and wide. The network also does mass retweets of messages by senior Likud officials, the report said.
According to the researchers, all the accounts belong to an individual named as Yitzchak Haddad, a resident of Ashkelon. The report says that Haddad, in communications with a private investigator, described how the network works, how it was funded, and how it is supported by “very senior members” of the Likud. The report added that the investigator spoke on the phone with Yonatan Urich, a campaign manager for the Likud, who said that he knew Haddad.
However, both have denied the story. Urich said that he “knew” the name of Haddad only from one of his social media accounts, and Haddad, for his part, denies the entire story. In a statement, attorneys for Haddad said “the events depicted never happened, and continuing to present them as fact will lead to a large libel lawsuit. There are no automated messages (bots), you are letting your imagination run wild. If there are phony accounts they are not connected to our client. You are liable to be sued by us for a million dollars for libeling our client.”
In comments to Yediot Acharonot, Haddad himself said he had no idea what the story was about. “You should be ashamed of yourselves for accusing someone like this. Who do you think you are?”
The Likud said in a statement that the party “has no connection in any way to this network. The Likud dose not automatically retweet messages using bots, avatars, phony profiles and the like. In fact the Likud is nearly the only party that does not use these tactics.”
In a statement, Blue and White said “Netanyahu is trying to steal the election. The investigation shows that Netanyahu is directing the ugliest campaign in Israeli history. We call for an immediate police investigation into how this campaign is being paid for.”