Israeli independent watchdog organization Big Bots Project published a 36-page report Monday detailing a network of hundreds of accounts it says are fake or may be fake that appear to be coordinating the sharing of pro-Netanyahu posts.
According to Big Bots founders Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, the report identifies 154 accounts with fake names and another 400 suspected of being fake, and says they appear to be operated by people, not bots. Their posts, all in Hebrew, have reached of 2.5 million people in a country of roughly 8.7 million, the New York Times, which received an advance copy of the report on Sunday, notes.
"One person might be operating tens or hundreds of accounts at the same time," Adam told AP on Monday. "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."
However, in a twist, some of the "bots" turned up at a press conference with Netanyahu on Monday, very much made of flesh and blood.
"I'm not a bot. I wasn't paid," a man named Yoram, whose account under the name "Captain George" was identified as fake in the report, said at the presser. "Whatever I write comes from the heart. I see the injustice done to our prime minister and I react… I am a father to three children, six grandchildren and a seventh on the way, and that's it. I stand behind every word I tweet."
"What is this nonsense? I'm not allowed to support the right?" Moshe Mahlev, from Rishon Lezion, said on Israeli radio, according to the Jerusalem Post. His account was also named in the report, but he said "everything there is real, except for the photo… What do they think, real people don't vote for Likud in this country?"
"I thought it was an April Fool's joke, but it's not," Netanyahu said. "They say I don't have support from real people, just from robots. They can't accept that you, citizens of Israel, support me."
Netanyahu called Big Bots' claims "a fake investigation by a left-wing organization" supported by New York billionaire George Soros, who is often accused by right-wing figures of funding and controlling political movements and organizations critical of right-wing parties and politicos around the world.
The prime minister also said the report was intended to slander Likud to the advantage of Blue & White, a rival list in the upcoming April 9 elections, and attacked the claims as "blood libels," according to the Jerusalem Post.
However, later on Monday, Yuval clarified to the Washington Post that he and Adam had never claimed every account on the list was a bot.
"There are real accounts in that system, and there are real people. We did not say anywhere that there were bots, but that there are a group of accounts working together to promote an agenda," Yuval told the Post.
He noted the report describes a "network made up of hundreds of accounts that have no identifying name or profile photograph" and that "manipulated, slandered, lied and spread rumors anonymously" supporting Netanyahu and Likud.
"In a case like this, one of the most important things is to be able to tie the source of the activity to the actors behind it with some degree of certainty," web developer and technologist Chris Garaffa told Sputnik Monday. "It's not difficult for those with moderate technical sophistication — or the money to hire someone with those skills — to set up an advanced botnet in a short amount of time. The closest we get in this case to a direct connection is that Yair Netanyahu has interacted with some of the posts by accounts in this network."
"Although Facebook has been more prominently featured in the media around fake news and takedowns of supposedly illegitimate accounts, Twitter also has a long history of banning the accounts of individuals and organizations on suspicion of activity like this, as well as removing thousands of accounts at the same time with very little proof of coordinated activity," Garaffa said.
Noting that Twitter hasn't responded to inquiries about the report and hasn't moved to unpublish the accounts, Garaffa speculated that "in this case, the company itself wants to avoid being accused of meddling in the highly contentious Israeli elections coming up."
Author and journalist Daniel Lazare told Sputnik Monday that social media giants like Facebook and Twitter "have been placed in an impossible situation. With everyone accusing everyone else of manipulating social media, they're now liked crazed firemen rushing to put out one blaze after another. They don't want to be censors, but that's exactly what Russiagate has forced them to be. The more such accusations fly, the more censorious they must become."
However, Lazare cautioned that "not all bots are created equal." Recalling the repeated Russiagate trope of "Russian bots" supposedly spreading divisive material that served the Kremlin's interests, Lazare said that this situation is different, since "where Putin was the boogeyman du jour, Likud is different, since Netanyahu is enormously popular in both the White House and on Capitol Hill." Regardless of what proves to be true, the tech companies will be looking to Washington for guidance on how to proceed, he said.