Fake social media accounts boost Netanyahu, watchdog says

Israeli researchers say hundreds of fake Twitter accounts are promoting the prime minister ahead of April vote.

    The researchers found no direct connection between the Likud party and the network of fake accounts [Oded Balilty/ AP Photo]
    The researchers found no direct connection between the Likud party and the network of fake accounts [Oded Balilty/ AP Photo]

    A watchdog group in Israel says it has found a network of social media accounts spreading information about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a national election.

    Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, two researchers from the Big Bots Project, said in a report on Monday that they have uncovered hundreds of accounts promoting Netanyahu's Likud party and attacking his opponents.

    No direct connection has been found between the network and Netanyahu or the Likud, according to the report.

    Adam said his project discovered a network that included a number of real people, along with hundreds of Twitter accounts that appeared to be fake or duplicated.

    "One person might be operating tens or hundreds of accounts at the same time," he said, as cited by The Associated Press. "All these accounts are pushing their political agenda - not only that but also inciting hate speech, attacking very specific people who are opposed to their political agenda."

    Opinion polls show Netanyahu and his main rival, Benny Gantz, a former army chief, in a close race ahead of a vote that has been overshadowed by corruption charges against the prime minister, who is seeking a fifth term in office.

    The campaign has focused largely on personal attacks between the two frontrunners, with Gantz taking aim at Netanyahu's alleged ethical lapses, and Netanyahu painting Gantz as a weak "leftist". The prime minister's Likud Party has also tried to portray Gantz as being mentally unstable.

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    Netanyahu's son Yair, who has sparked controversy in the past with his social media activity, has frequently liked posts by the network's accounts. The Big Bots watchdog group said it was unclear who was operating the network, which has relayed tens of thousands of tweets that were viewed more than 2.5 million times.

    In response to the allegations, the Likud party denied any connection to the network and said the accounts identified by the researchers were real.

    "It turned out that those mentioned in the article are actually real people who even interview with the Israeli media," Likud spokesman Eli Hazan wrote on Twitter.

    The report said one surge of fake tweets came after Israel's attorney general announced in February that he intended to indict Netanyahu on charges of corruption, which the prime minister has denied are true.

    The report said another flurry of social media activity was launched after Gantz's Blue and White party kicked off its election campaign.

    "There is a whole network here, funded by big money, for stealing the election," Gantz said at a news conference after the findings were released. "This matter demands investigation."

    The expose about the pro-Netanyahu network was the latest technology related incident in the tumultuous 2019 Israeli election campaign. Last month, news broke that Gantz's personal telephone was infiltrated by Iranian hackers. While Gantz contends no sensitive information was compromised, Netanyahu leveraged the breach to argue that Gantz was unprepared to lead the country.

    Israelis will vote in a national election on April 9.

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    SOURCE: News agencies