Israeli group says net­work of bots is stump­ing for Ne­tanyahu

Sun.Star Pampanga - - TECHNEWS! -

Jsaid ERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli watch­dog group Mon­day that it found a net­work of so­cial me­dia bots dis­sem­i­nat­ing mes­sages in sup­port of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu ahead of next week’s elec­tions.

Noam Rotem and Yu­val Adam, two re­searchers op­er­at­ing the Big Bots Project, said in a re­port that they un­cov­ered hun­dreds of fake ac­counts spread­ing mes­sages in sup­port of Ne­tanyahu’s Likud party and smear­ing his opponents. Likud de­nied the al­le­ga­tions.

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 du­pli­cate.

“One per­son might be op­er­at­ing tens or hun­dreds of ac­counts at the same time,” he told 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.”

He said this ap­peared to be a vi­o­la­tion of Twit­ter’s terms of use. He said the find­ings had been for­warded to Twit­ter in hopes of de­ac­ti­vat­ing the fake ac­counts. Twit­ter de­clined com­ment.

Adam said the Big Bots Project was fi­nanced through a crowd­fund­ing pro­gram. The project also in­cludes re­searchers from Ben Gu­rion Univer­sity’s Cy­ber Re­search Cen­ter and Tel Aviv Univer­sity.

Is­raelis head to the polls in eight days in a close race be­tween Ne­tanyahu and his main ri­val, for­mer army chief of staff Benny Gantz. Ne­tanyahu is seek­ing a fifth term in of­fice un­der the shadow of cor­rup­tion charges.

The cam­paign has fo­cused largely on per­sonal at­tacks be­tween the two front-run­ners, 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.

Rotem and Adam said they found no di­rect link be­tween the net­work and Ne­tanyahu or Likud. But Ne­tanyahu’s son Yair, who has run into trou­ble in the past for con­tro­ver­sial so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­ity, has fre­quently liked posts by the net­work’s ac­counts.

They said it was unclear who was op­er­at­ing the net­work. The re­port said the net­work had re­layed tens of thou­sands of tweets and gar­nered over 2.5 mil­lion en­gage­ments.

Many of the ac­counts in the net­work were largely in­ac­tive be­fore elec­tions were an­nounced in De­cem­ber. Since then, these users have tweeted fre­quently and ex­clu­sively about the Likud party and against its opponents, Adam said.

The re­port found a huge spike in ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the first few months of the year com­pared to the same pe­riod in 2018; for ex­am­ple, March 2019 had 13.2 times more av­er­age ac­tiv­ity than in the same month last year.

One of the most ac­tive Twit­ter ac­counts men­tioned in the re­port be­came pri­vate shortly af­ter the 34page doc­u­ment was pub­lished, Adam said.

At a press con­fer­ence con­vened to ad­dress the is­sue, Ne­tanyahu dis­missed the re­port sar­cas­ti­cally as an April Fool’s Day prank. He called it a “false li­bel” by the me­dia based on a “fake in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

“Al­most all of the ex­am­ples, per­haps all of them, turned out to be real peo­ple. They have a name, they have a face, they have fam­i­lies, and the worst thing: they have opin­ions of their own. In­de­pen­dent peo­ple,” Ne­tanyahu said. “Not one of them is fake.”

One Twit­ter user named in the re­port, Ziv Kno­bler, said in an in­ter­view with Is­rael’s Army Ra­dio that “there is noth­ing or­ga­nized. We are a group of peo­ple who be­lieve in the way of Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu.”

“We ex­pressed per­sonal opin­ions, not on be­half of an or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Kno­bler said. “We have ab­so­lutely no con­nec­tion to the Likud party.”

Af­ter the Big Bots Project’s re­port head­lined Mon­day’s edi­tion of He­brew daily Ye­dioth Ahronoth, Gantz’s Blue and White party wrote on Twit­ter that “Ne­tanyahu is try­ing to steal the elec­tions” and called for a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion to de­ter­mine the net­work’s fund­ing. 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.

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