'I've Seen How Far It Could Go': The Bot Hunter Who Exposes Netanyahu's Manipulative Facebook Tactics

Why people prefer to believe the lie, according to an Israeli activist who exposes fake social media profiles that spread misinformation

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Yossi Dorfman. “You don’t need to be a web genius to expose fake profiles. You only need to examine the data and use good judgment.”
Yossi Dorfman. “You don’t need to be a web genius to expose fake profiles. You only need to examine the data and use good judgment.”Credit: Hadas Parush
Ayelett Shani

Yossi Dorfman, tell me about yourself.

I’m a digital consultant, an independent journalist and an activist involved in social and environmental causes, a protester against the capital-government nexus, corporations, corruption.

You’re also what’s known as a bot hunter. You expose fictitious personae on the web, including the false profile “Dana Ron” – the nonexistent person whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained was threatening to assassinate him last year.

I got to Dana Ron by chance. A friend send me a photo of a Netanyahu post on Facebook in which he alleged that there was incitement against him. I didn’t have time to [immediately] look into it. That evening, the same post appeared in my Twitter account, this time as a Netanyahu tweet. I started to look for the person on the web, to see whether anyone had already written that it was a fake. I knew there was a story: The prime minister is posting the comment of a nonexistent person who’s calling for someone to pump a bullet into his head. I was amazed that no one in the media had bothered to check who and what it was.

I started calling people and crosschecking data. When I realized definitively that it was a fake and a manipulation, I simply sat down to write a thread on Twitter explaining in detail how such manipulation works. What bothered me most was the unbridled behavior of Netanyahu and his staff, who are experienced professionals in the digital realm. I assume that they also suspected that it was fake, but they went public with it anyway. [Ultimately Facebook announced that the Dana Ron account was fake and removed the profile.] You’re responsible for the media of the prime minister of Israel and this is what you publish? You’ll do anything in the name of pinpoint political manipulation? You don’t think about what the lies, the manipulation and the delegitimization of whole segments of the population are doing to our society?

Are you really asking that?

No. As an activist, it’s what I’ve become accustomed to from the premier over the years. He’s an expert in self-victimization and in delegitimizing his opponents. It was important for me to unravel this manipulation – which aimed to delegitimize the [anti-Netanyahu] protest movement and its activists – in order to expose this method of operation to the public.

How did you get into this sort of activism?

I started to get really involved in it a few years ago, when I managed the digital activity in the campaign over the natural-gas issue [specifically, over government plans to sell the rights to exploit Israel’s offshore gas fields to foreign investors]. I saw then how far it could go. How powerful interests are simply playing with our consciousness, disseminating lies and disinformation in multiple ways, most commonly through the use of fake identities, known as “bots” or “sock puppets.”

Can you explain how it works?

“Bot” is short for “robot.” It’s a persona on social media that’s operated by computerized means. An automated program activates one or more false identities in order to convey the messages that whoever is behind the program wants to get across.

For example, if I’m a politician who wants to eliminate a rival, I can use bots that will allege, say, that he’s a pedophile.

The use of bots amplifies the volume of a particular issue, in order to create a feeling among the public that this is the prevailing consciousness and the reality. If a large number of authentic-looking figures on the web will claim that your competitor is a pedophile, we’ll think that it’s true. We have no way to check for ourselves, in most cases, which is exactly what the people activating the bots are counting on. Besides bots there are also avatars – fake personae that are not operated by a computer but by a person. There is a Facebook persona that wants to be our friend, we chat with it on Messenger without knowing that behind that character is someone who wants to exploit us, perhaps to spread information through us, or to extract information from us.

So this a service that you can actually purchase.

There are companies in Israel and abroad that sell services that will activate fake identities. Israel, by the way, is highly developed in this area. You contact these companies and they place their personae at your disposal. They have a life of their own on the web, and they promote all kinds of things that could be the brand or the politician that are competing with you directly – until the moment when you acquire their services.

Prime Minister Netanyahu.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s not cheap to buy a veteran avatar on Facebook. Can you quote numbers?

Avatars with a history will be expensive. It’s hard to assess exact prices, because they’re fluid, but in principle it can range between a few thousand shekels for small-scale commercial activity, to hundreds of thousands of dollars for political activity. The price is not per figure but per the activity or the whole operation.

Let’s turn to the broader context: the “battle for consciousness.”

That is a battle that’s taking place all the time. Manipulation by means of fake profiles on the web is only part of the manipulation we’re subjected to on a daily basis. We are bombarded with information, both from commercial companies and from politicians, that simply gets in the way of our being able to grasp what’s true and what’s a lie.

‘We must be critical’

It’s our misfortune to live in the post-truth era, with post-truth politics.

My motivation for being an activist in this field stems from my aversion to life in a dystopian reality, which is what our situation is increasingly becoming because of all the technological advances. There are people who want to impose a particular consciousness on us. For me, it’s important that we know the existing objective truth, that we see the data. You don’t need to be a professional or a web genius to expose fake profiles. You only need to examine the data and use basic good judgment. To look at the profile on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and to check what language it’s using, what content it’s promoting, whom it connects with and whom it contacts, whom it follows and who follows it. Everyone can do that. That’s the message I try to get across in all my activity: We are being manipulated and we must be critical. All the time. Even though it’s difficult.

We’re bombarded with information, both from commercial companies and politicians, and this simply prevents us from grasping what’s true and what’s a lie.

Yossi Dorfman

My father would tell you to forget it. What do I care if Edna from Petah Tikva who thanks the prime minister for his leadership really exists or not?

That’s something I hear a lot. There’s a modicum of truth in it, but that doesn’t make the subject less important or less a matter principle. The real question is what reality is. After all, these manipulations don’t remain within the framework of discourse on the web. A few months ago, a false page appeared on Facebook posing as the page of the “Crime Minister” protest movement. A post on the page called on demonstrators to equip themselves with tear gas and tasers, which the organization was supposedly distributing, in order to use them against the police. That fake post was shared by “The Shadow,” namely [rapper and right-wing activist] Yoav Eliasi, and also by Yair Netanyahu [the prime minister’s son], and through them it reached many followers who continued disseminating it.

What happened afterward shows the manipulative power of lies on the web. The Israel Police spokesperson issued a statement reporting that a call had been posted on social media calling on demonstrators to acquire tear gas and other harmful means to be used against the police. Afterward Chief Superintendent Ziv Sagiv, in a live interview on Channel 13, read the false post from the fake profile and thereby showed how he too had been taken in by the manipulation – he’s the head of the police investigations department. Three weeks later, in a Knesset debate, MK Osnat Mark [Likud] read out the same fabricated post.

And when she was told it was fake, she said it makes no difference.

For people who want to think that the protest movement is violent, exposure of the lie really makes no difference. They want the lie. I imagine that quite a few people, who hadn’t come up with a definite opinion on the subject, may have heard the police officer or Osnat Mark and concluded that the demonstrators really are out to attack civilians and police officers.

Here’s another example: Let’s say we encounter a whole series of identities on the internet who tell us a particular face cream is simply superb. In parallel, other users tell us that the competing brand of cream causes allergies. In the end, when we want to buy a face cream, we’ll buy the one we were told is great, because we were influenced, because our consciousness was fixed on a particular idea, which is exactly the thought that the person who operates these fake characters wants us to entertain. We were influenced to do something we would not otherwise have done.

The falsity on the web generates or turns into real action.

That’s also the way to understand the assault on Capitol Hill [in Washington, D.C., on January 6]. The day before the rioting, I gave a talk on web manipulation. While preparing the talk, I looked for an example of a conspiracy that wielded influence over masses of people. The conspiracy concocted by Trump about the stolen election, which achieved an unprecedented presence on the web, was simply the perfect example. I probed and investigated, and I want to tell you that when you are exposed to the information they [Trump supporters] are spreading and are bombarded with it nonstop, you understand how something like that can happen. They really think the election was stolen from them. They totally believe it, and when they believe it, they themselves become agents of falsehood.

A “Stop the Steal” protest in Washington, D.C., November 2020. Credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters

They become living bots.

Yes, and the lie also takes on a life of its own. What works best in campaigns that involve false consciousness is the talking points. You give your audience the points of reference they have simply been waiting for. They are dying to disseminate these ideas, and will do so even if they themselves suspect or know they are lies, because they want to win in the battle over people’s consciousness. They feel that they are victorious, together with you. Go to the Facebook page of [right-wing pundit and Mideast scholar Dr.] Guy Bechor, or his Twitter profile, and you enter a world that is wholly a conspiracy of how the election in the United States was stolen. If you weren’t aware of the reality and if you only read Guy Bechor, you would be convinced in a second that the election was stolen. The more so because what Guy Bechor keeps harping on is, “They won’t tell you this in the [mainstream] media.”

Well, that’s an old trick of Netanyahu’s. The uglier the manipulation he wants to wreak on his listeners, the longer his introduction will be, where he explains that the information he is about to impart is being kept secret from you and that only he understands how smart his listeners are and what good judgment they exercise. It works. People like to feel they are in possession of exclusive information to which others have no access.

Netanyahu likes to employ conspiratorial elements in addressing his audience. When he explains to his followers that he is giving them information the media is hiding, they not only feel special – they also feel closer to the source of the information. He is effectively giving them the power to decide what reality is, and that spurs them to go on spreading and sharing his posts, because from their point of view they have now discovered what reality is. The notion that “the media isn’t telling you” works, because people want to believe that [alternate] information.

A well-known bias: We’re interested in information that squares with our opinions and beliefs.

Guy Bechor is spreading the information about the stolen election to people who want to believe him because they want Trump to win. He refers people to his closed channel for information – for payment. People pay him because they want to get the information from the person who supposedly possesses it. Look how powerful the manipulation is. It induces people to spend money in order to receive the information, and then to work on spreading it.

I find a great deal of similarity between the Trumpist campaign and the Bibist campaign, and the effects they have on their audience. With Trump the supporters promote the conspiracy of the stolen election, here it’s the conspiracy of a judicial frame-up. In both cases, there’s no proof that these things really happened; they’re accusations on the part of different people with no concrete basis. But in both cases the theory takes hold. The reason is that the audience wants the theory that’s disseminated to be true: Trump’s fans want to know that the election was stolen from him and not that he lost, and Netanyahu’s fans want him not to be tried and for him to remain in power. What Trump and Netanyahu do manipulatively is to give the crowd ammunition for them to use on the web and outside it. When Guy Bechor is [journalist] Avri Gilad’s guest in a television studio, you say to yourself, “Wow, a Ph.D., for sure he knows what he’s talking about. That’s one of the essential problems with this story: that the media still treats the web as something marginal.

Netanyahu is the biggest agent of falsehood in Israel. One of his strengths is that he can find an excuse for most of the lies he spreads.

Yossi Dorfman

As something that’s marginal relative to the [mainstream] media, as though we were still in the period when the web was just a source of cat videos.

But the web today is life itself. There’s no separation. On the contrary: The web is the continuation of our actuality in the real world. We will just keep moving in that direction, and if we don’t understand that the web is concrete life, we won’t be able to grasp reality. The mainstream channels must occupy themselves with checking the facts and exposing manipulations, because public consciousness is formed on the web.

Pyramids flattened, or maybe not

This reality is the realization of the dream of manipulative politicians. The removal of all the filters and mediators. An unmediated appeal to the voters. The rise of populist leaders in the past decade didn’t take place in a vacuum.

Early in the last decade, I was impressed by the flattening of the pyramid: by how close we, the citizens, are now to the authorities, to the centers of power. We could talk to them. Here they are! But in the end, something happened that happens in many technological leaps and developments. The rich and the powerful turn the Achilles’ heel into an advantage. Politicians and corporations have learned how to utilize the web in order to exploit us; they’ve learned how to wield their manipulations in the most effective way. Whether it’s by spreading knowledge and content whose sources we don’t really know, or by turning us into disseminators of their messages. The pyramid wasn’t really flattened.

It just turned over on us.

Yes. This nonstop bombardment of information has led the media to do less and less checking of the materials politicians feed it. PR people are often able to get items into the media unfiltered. Bibi is a champion at that. Take, for example, the story of the breach of the Balfour Street compound [by left-wing protesters] that never happened. People who were there, physically, or who, like me, watched [journalist and anti-Netanyahuactivist] Or-ly Barlev’s live broadcast, are well aware that no barrier was breached. But the information that was conveyed to the reporters, and which they circulated, is that a barrier at the entrance to the prime minister’s residence was breached and that Netanyahu was taken to a [secure] room for protection.

There are several parts to this story. Even if Netanyahu really was taken to another room, go check whether a barrier was breached. No one checked. Most of the audience received the message Netanyahu tried to convey: that the barrier was breached and he was hustled to another room. I, of course, don’t know whether he was taken to another room for his protection, but I do know that no barrier was breached, so how did that story get into the headlines?

“Trump fans want to know the election was stolen, not that he lost.”Credit: BING GUAN/Reuters

Interesting that it was [TV Channel 12’s] reporter Amit Segal who broadcast a report like that.

If he claimed that a barrier was breached, he didn’t do the basic journalistic work of checking and crosschecking facts. What was there? Fences that are intended to stop cars, which anyone, including Amit Segal, could have got past. I don’t say that he should not have broadcast the report, only that he should report what really happened. The mainstream media need to employ people who will check what is happening on the web. How is that they don’t check the [veracity of the] prime minister’s social-media profile regularly? After all, by those means he succeeds in reaching far more people than he does through an item that appears on [news] websites or in the press or on television – and many times his items are paid for.

He constantly puts forward manipulative claims, some of which are also false. Recently he wrote on Twitter: “Not one word about this in the propaganda channels, which are hiding the truth from you – you already know why.” The report was that the court ordered the state prosecution to provide the premier’s defense counsel with the documents attesting to the opening of the investigation in one of the cases against him. Were we really not informed? It was reported in Haaretz, not exactly a right-wing paper, before he tweeted it. When the media doesn’t fact-check, it is not doing its job; it is helping manipulation occupy a place in our reality and often enough also echoing the lie. It should have been the established media that checked the Dana Ron story, not me.

Overall, that story raises the question of whether they chanced upon that profile and made use of it, or whether – and I don’t know, of course – they were connected to that profile in some other way.

Netanyahu is the biggest agent of falsehood in Israel. One of his strengths is that he can find an excuse for most of the lies he spreads. I can’t say that Netanyahu – the father or the son – knew they were posting lies or sharing a fictional persona, I can only surmise it. I also don’t know who created the [Dana Ron] profile. That’s one of the most potent elements in the manipulations of unidentified profiles. Few people can know what the source is, and usually there will only be two: whoever posted the fictional profile, and the platform, such as Facebook, say, where it was posted.

A few months ago, you exposed suspect profiles as fakes – the people behind them posed as protest activists and compared Netanyahu to Hitler. That’s going much further than just operating a bot. To invent people in order to stigmatize an entire public whom they are supposedly part of, is absolutely satanic. We mustn’t make comparisons – but maybe it’s worthwhile.

For me, of the fake profiles I’ve exposed to date, that is the most significant one. There are genuine dystopian elements here: fake figures that pretended to be protest activists hooked up with those leading the demonstrations, linking them without their knowledge to incitement against the government, and running a systematic campaign in which they described Netanyahu as Hitler and the protesters as Jewish heroes. The campaign was aimed against the regime’s opponents as part of what looked like a “false flag” operation – a fraudulent exercise that disguises those behind it, with the aim of vilifying a particular group. Here, too, we don’t know who was behind the campaign, but the target was clear: the protest activists, who were portrayed as extremist and dangerous, exactly as Netanyahu described them when he complained about incitement against him.

What is truly grave in that story is that after I exposed the profiles as fakes, Channel 12 ran a report stating that the ministerial committee on the Shin Bet security service held a meeting to discuss incitement against the prime minister on social media. Excuse me, but what does the Shin Bet have to do with the imparting of a false consciousness to the public in Israel? That’s just as dangerous, you know. The Israeli public isn’t supposed to know what the reality it in which it lives? What’s a lie and what’s the truth? The attempt to sow conflict or to make people think that other people are dangerous undermines the very foundations of society.

I’m not sure truth is the criterion. Who needs truth?

Unfortunately, in the era we live in, there are many people who don’t want to know the truth. That also helps manipulations get disseminated. Netanyahu’s son is a super-spreader of manipulations and slanders, and also lies. A while back he lashed out at the demonstrators and posted a tweet by a fake persona, which said that it doesn’t care if his parents and his grandparents become infected with COVID-19 – the main thing is to demonstrate and boot Bibi out.

I investigated and uncovered the fact that this was a fake profile. I know that Yair Netanyahu saw that I had exposed the falsehood, because he himself took the trouble to respond to it on his page. A few weeks later, he made use of the same fake profile again, repeating that it made no difference if everyone were to become infected, as long as Bibi got out of our lives. He’d already seen that we’d exposed his post as a mendacious manipulation, but that didn’t stop him from floating it again.

When he disseminates it the second time, I imagine that it’s clear to him, too, that he’s disseminating a lie. That’s one of the problems with people who live the lie: They don’t care if they are lying and repeating the lies. People don’t really check the source of every item; often the lie will be the only thing that’s burned into their consciousness, even if it’s revealed that it is indeed a lie.

Now we’re headed for an election, so it’s going to get ugly.

Yes. We’re already starting to see increasing numbers of fictitious profiles intended to make certain messages resonate. We saw them in the last campaign too. We are exposed to countless manipulations from a politician or from his or her envoys, those who amplify their messages on the web. That’s the politicians’ great strength: to get other people to lie for them, to keep reality from us. The result is creation of profiles disguised as other profiles, like fake protest activists, or the fake profile of Or-ly Barlev that was opened [in her name] on Twitter.

The problem is that a lie has no price tag. For example, take the story of the fake page of the Crime Minister movement. Did the police officer who read out the fake post on television and libeled people pay a price? No, he still holds the same position. Yair Netanyahu certainly didn’t pay a price. Osnat Mark didn’t pay a price – maybe she even scored a few points with supporters who today no longer expect a politician to tell the public the truth, but to be a good liar, to lie in order to win. On their behalf.

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