A website posing as a Harvard University research institute posted Wednesday a fake article alleging a former Mossad chief had said Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned earlier that day, is a Russian spy, implying he was therefore actually fired by the prime minister.
The article appeared on an imitation website of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a prestigious research institute at Harvard University. It was first shared by a fake Twitter handle who also distributed it to several journalists. According to the piece, dated November 14, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo had told a Belfer-sponsored seminar the previous week that he had confidential information according to which Lieberman was a Russian agent and that “Moscow's interests will take priority over those of Tel Aviv for Lieberman."
Needless to say, Lieberman is not a Russian agent, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not fire him and Tamir Pardo said no such thing. This was a classic, well-produced piece of fake news whose source is still not clear.
First of all, the website that the Twitter user posted from is a forgery, and was not an amateur job. The web address of the real Belfer Center is belfercenter.org, while the forged page’s URL is belfercenter.net. The design, however, is identical to that of the original and the links are the same, other than the name of the domain. Even experienced web users might miss this critical detail.
Both the website and the domain name were purchased from Name Cheap, a company that specializes in anonymous web hosting, meaning that it doesn’t reveal who purchases and sets up websites on its platform.
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The Twitter account that disseminated the fake news, by "Bina Melamed," is also a fake account of high quality; it was established in 2010 and has quite a few followers. But when you examine the account closely, you see that in all the years it has existed, it has only issued four “Likes.” The followers also look fake – mostly accounts in Arabic or Russian bots.
Unlike most fictitious users who try to influence a discussion or other users, this fictitious user tries to trick journalists. The user sent the article to numerous reporters, among them Liat Lahav and Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer, to try to persuade them to write follow-up stories to the false report.
This method was used against Netanyahu and his son Yair in the past. As part of that failed operation, a fake news site also stored on Name Cheap was built, and an unknown Twitter profile sent Jewish and Israeli journalists a fake article dealing with Yair Netanyahu and his business in the United Arab Emirates. Haaretz journalist Chaim Levinson detected that scam, limiting its spread, but there were some journalists who bought it. This time, the quality of the fake profile was higher.
In this case as well, it was journalists’ vigilance that blocked the fake news from going far. The big question is who was behind it. As of now, all efforts to find out who is behind the fake website and Twitter profile have failed.
Ran Bar-Zik is a developer at OATH and writes at internet-israel.com