Bots helping Netanyahu win?

An Israeli watchdog group has found a network of hundreds of social media accounts, many of them fake, used to smear opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming election and to amplify the messages of his Likud party, according to a report to be released soon. Israel defines itself as a Jewish and...

An Israeli watchdog group has found a network of hundreds of social media accounts, many of them fake, used to smear opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming election and to amplify the messages of his Likud party, according to a report to be released soon.

Background

Israel defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state. The country has a liberal democracy, with a parliamentary system, proportional representation, and universal suffrage. The prime minister is head of government and the Knesset is the legislature.

Benjamin Netanyahu is an Israeli politician serving as the 9th and current Prime Minister of Israel since 2009, previously holding the position from 1996 to 1999. Netanyahu is also currently a member of the Knesset and the Chairman of the Likud party. He is the first Israeli Prime Minister born in Israel after the establishment of the state.

Netanyahu has been elected Prime Minister of Israel four times, matching David Ben-Gurion for most premierships, and he is the only prime minister in Israel's history to have been elected three times in a row. Netanyahu is currently also the second longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel's history after David Ben-Gurion.

Early legislative elections will be held in Israel on 9 April 2019 to elect the members of the twenty-first Knesset. The elections had been due in November 2019 but were brought forward following a dispute between members of the ruling coalition government over a bill on national service for the ultra-Orthodox population.

Analysis

The watchdog group, the Big Bots Project, an independent organization that aims to expose the malicious use of social media, found no direct links between the network and Mr. Netanyahu, his party or his son, but said it appeared to operate in coordination with the party and Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.

“The network operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumors,” the report said. “On its busiest days, the network sends out thousands of tweets a day.”

The messages posted on the network’s Twitter and Facebook accounts are frequently reposted by prominent Likud campaign officials and by the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu, the report says.

The network’s activity has intensified almost fivefold since the election was called in December, the report said, and “is mobilized at climactic moments for Netanyahu, such as the announcement of the indictment against him.” The report says the network may violate Israeli laws pertaining to elections, campaign finance, privacy and taxation.

A spokesman for the Likud party said that it did not run a network of fake accounts. “All of the Likud’s digital activity is entirely authentic and is based on the great support of the citizens of Israel for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the great achievements of the Likud,” the spokesman, Jonathan Urich, said.

Mr. Netanyahu, who is facing an indictment on corruption charges, is in a tight race for what he hopes will be his fourth consecutive term. He is facing a strong challenge from Benny Gantz, a retired army chief, in the April 9 election. According to the report, 154 of the accounts in the network use fake names and another 400 accounts are suspected of being fake. The accounts appear to be operated by people, not bots, making them much harder to detect, the report says. Their posts, all in Hebrew, have had over 2.5 million hits, the report’s authors estimate, in a country with 8.7 million citizens.

The network has also attacked the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, echoing Mr. Netanyahu’s assertion that by seeking to indict the prime minister the attorney general had “surrendered to the media and the left.” The network’s messages have been redistributed by prominent figures in the Likud campaign team. Yair Netanyahu, son of PM Netanyahu, has retweeted the network’s members 154 times, the report said. Similarly, the network “liked” and replied to his messages 1,481 times, and shared his messages 429 times.

Assessment

Our assessment is that PM Netanyahu is aggressively seeking a record fifth term as Israeli PM and the recent criminal indictments against him have massively dented his candidature. We believe that the bots are used to suppress any credible accusation of misconduct, general criticism and policy rebuttals to ensure a weakened opposition in the lead up to the election. 

Image Courtesy: Hudson Institute (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_Netanyahu_30498881961.jpg), „Benjamin Netanyahu 30498881961“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

Read more:

Comments