The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and The New York Times today published a report by the Big Bots Project, that reveal a secret and complex network of hundreds of fictitious entities on Twitter, and the method they used. The network raise suspicions of serious criminal offenses.
The Twitter account owner who calls himself “Moshe” has become very active in recent months. Since the elections were announced in Israel, he has been tweeting at least a few times a day, almost always political tweets, with a clear direction: for the right and the Likud, and especially for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His profile picture shows a handsome young man, but this face does not belong to anyone named Moshe.
The man in the picture is a Greek model, Theo Theodoridis, and can not find “Moshe” testimonies in other social networks. If in the first three months of 2018 he squeaked 16 times, in the first three months of 2019, at the height of the election campaign, he squeaked 2,856 times.
Moshe’s account is one of the hundreds of fictitious entities that were identified recently in the investigative report published for the first time in Yedioth Ahronoth and at the New York Times. The investigation revealed a network of accounts with pseudonyms of similar characteristics, synchronized with each other, echoing the Likud’s messages and dealing more than once with spreading poisonous propaganda, lies and slander against the enemies of Netanyahu and the media.
The network’s activity, which experts estimate to have increased by four and a half times since the end of December 2018 and has gained more than 2.5 million exposures, raises suspicions of serious criminal offenses, including violations of the Propaganda Methods Law, election financing, impersonation, income tax and more. The report does not show a direct link between the Likud or any of its employees and the secret campaign.
Bond, the network operator
The researchers found that one Twitter account called “BOND” is at the center of the network and is connected to all its members. His picture, e-mail address and personal content are all of Yitzhak Hadad’s from Ashdod. In a conversation with a private investigator, Haddad said he was “an undercover activist,” explaining that he was “making videos and all sorts of beautiful things that are coming up.” When asked whether it was funded, Haddad replied yes.
Regarding the amounts invested in operating such a network, Haddad said: “I do not want to say tens of millions, but I’m investing a lot of money here.” Hadad also admitted that he was connected to “very senior people” in the Likud, and in a telephone conversation yesterday afternoon, the private investigator asked Yonatan Orich, one of the Likud campaign managers and advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, if he knew and worked with Haddad. He later said that he knew Haddad “only from Facebook” and that he had never met him.
Haddad is subscribing to a YouTube channel that raises workers for the election campaign in exchange for a high fee. In some ads, payment is offered in cash, which raises the possibility that it is a partner in recruiting and activating paid responders on social networks. The proposed work on the YouTube channel is “to respond to Facebook and the Internet with political messages.”
The report found that members of the network use a series of phrases taken from the Likud propaganda in a coordinated manner. For example, the accounts used the slogan “collapse like a tower of cards,” used by the Likud campaign to downplay the value of the recommendations on the indictments against Netanyahu, in order to attack Ganz. In addition, after the media reported an Iranian hacking of Benny Gantz’s smartphone, the counterfeit account operators began to publish messages that Gantz was under blackmail and called on him to retire.
The network cites the Likud messages, and the chants of several senior activists, including Likud lawyer Michael Dvorin, Jonatan Urich, and social networks director Lior Harari and Topaz. One who still enjoys a sympathetic attitude toward the network, and even manages a mutual relationship with it, is the son of Prime Minister Yair Netanyahu. The fake accounts mark like and re-share at much larger rates than the average, and the tweets of Dvorin, Orih, Harari, Luk and Netanyahu the son – for their part mark like and re-tweet.
Prof. Karine Nahon, president of the Israel Internet Association says that the use of the fictitious network is meant to influence the public agenda and change the behavior of voters: “False news has a far more rapid, wide and varied potential than the news that contradicts it and seeks to present reality. Harm to a fair democratic process. ”
The chairman of the Elections Committee, Judge Hanan Meltzer, recently issued a precedent-setting order that also publishes propaganda on the Internet and social networks must be politically identified with those who stand behind them.
The report was written by the founders of the “Big Bots Project”, Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, who expose attempts to misuse the social network, together with the “Israeli Alliance.” The budget for conducting the debriefing was collected by means of a crowdfunding campaign.
“Likud has no connection to the network”
The Likud said in response to the investigation: “The Likud is not connected in any way to the network to which you referred, and the Likud does not operate any network of bots, avatars, fake profiles, etc. The Likud is almost the only party that does not use such means.
The Likud’s digital activity is completely legal and properly reported to the State Comptroller and to the competent authorities. Contrary to the claim, Jonatan Uric and Topaz Luk do not know Mr. Haddad, he is not employed by the Likud and they have no connection with the Likud. The great sympathy for Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu is based solely on the great achievements of Prime Minister Netanyahu for the citizens of Israel and for the State of Israel. ”
On behalf of Yair Netanyahu, he said: “Yair Netanyahu has no role in the Likud campaign, does not know the people of the network, and is not involved in its activities, insofar as there is such a thing.”
Sources close to Yedioth Ahronoth said that “the Likud is the only party in Israel that does not employ fake profiles, and there are many strange profiles that curse Yair and praise Ganz – they are the real suspects … The Likud will not use it in the knowledge that Yedioth Ahronoth and the other mobilized media will discover this second”.
One of the Likud’s social networks, Topaz Luk, said: “This is a lie.”
Yitzhak Hadad, who is associated with the user “BOND”, was asked yesterday whether he is recruiting through YouTube employees who will work for the Likud on Twitter. Haddad replied: “I do not know what YouTube is, I do not know what Twitter is, you do not know anything, you’re just crazy, I have no idea what you’re talking about, and you’ll be ashamed to turn to a person like that.
“You have no right to shut your mouths to the right and not to the left, to the organization that deals with finding accounts,” he said. “Who are the people who will decide or decide on the open and enlightened world?” It sounds bad, dark and silenced.
Hadad’s lawyer, attorney David Elbaz, said: “My client totally rejects what is attributed to him. The allegations against my client are fictitious, completely delusional and have no trace of truth. I hereby inform you that any publication attributing to my client what you claim will result in the filing of a $ 1 million lawsuit against the advertisers for libel and damage to its reputation. ”
In a phone conversation last night, Yonatan Urich said that he knows Haddad “only from Facebook” and that he does not remember saying that he is with him in other connections, friends or business. He says that he and Haddad have nothing and never met him.
The Blue-White Party said: “Netanyahu is trying to steal the elections, and the investigation in Yedioth Ahronoth and The New York Times reveals that the ugly slanderous system in Israel’s history is directly employed by Netanyahu.
We call for the immediate opening of a police investigation after the funding sources of the campaign. We call on Justice Meltzer, the chairman of the Elections Committee, to immediately order an end to this ugly Pike News campaign, and after 13 years of government, Netanyahu has lost his temper and is trying to win by fraud and if Israel succeeds, Israel will cease to be a democracy. Huge budgets from the state budget for the industry of lies and slander against the 20th chief of staff. Every decent citizen of Israel must stand up against the attempt to destroy our democratic foundations. ”
By Ronen Bergman and Inbar Toyzer