Behind Authentic Facebook Pages, Parties Pull Strings

Campaigns buy or borrow profiles to spread their message, which could put them in violation of Israel’s election laws

Labourers work on hanging up a Likud election campaign banner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his party candidates, Jerusalem, March 28, 2019.
Ammar Awad/Reuters

Meet Esther Veit, if you can. Her Facebook account was set up at the start of 2018. Her profile describes her as 60 years old, but that’s the only personal information it contains. But Veit has recently been busy on social networking sites.

Every day she uploads scores of posts. On Monday, for example, she posted between 8:30 and 11:30 in the morning no fewer than 22 of them. They don’t include the kind of things you might expect from somebody of her age and gender – no pictures of grandchildren, no recipes or movie recommendations.

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If her Facebook page is any indication, Veit has only one interest and it’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Her posts are dedicated only to expressing her unwavering support for the prime minister and Likud while attacking Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan. Veit repeats over and over again the claim that Gantz will join with Israel’s Arab parties and she attacks journalist Raviv Drucker, who exposed the Case 3000 submarines affair.

Veit is part of a critical element in political parties’ campaign strategy to use the immense power of social networks to influence public opinion ahead of next Tuesday’s election. Campaign workers use the profile of a real person solely for the purpose of broadcasting political messages during the election.

Campaigns rarely employ bots -- computer programs programmed to perform tasks automatically and independently, mimicking the behavior of flesh and blood users.

The profile could be operated by the real person behind the profile who reposts any and all campaign messages or, as is more likely the case, it is operated by others employed by the campaign organization. The real user either volunteers to hand over his or her Facebook page or may even be paid for it.

Either way, the bottom line is that 20 people sitting in a room at campaign headquarters can post messages via hundreds of profiles in an orchestrated campaign.

“The big parties are the ones that need these users,” said Idan Ben-Or, an expert on promoting websites on Google. “The fight today is over who will be the next prime minister. One side wants to relay the message that Bibi is corrupt and other wants to tar Kahol Lavan, mainly Gantz and [Yair] Lapid.

“To broadcast that message you need a lot of people. The problem is that most parties don’t have a lot of people who care enough. In the case of the Likud, people like Bibi but his base won’t sit around writing posts all day on Facebook. It’s work and you need to have people who will do it,” explained Ben-Or.

In the case of the Likud, the system works like this. The prime minister will post something on his official Facebook page. Netanyahu loyalists share the post, but the number may only be in the hundreds. More importantly they also share the posts with Facebook groups like “Benjamin Netanyahu – My Prime Minister,” which was set up shortly before the 2015 elections and counts 60,000 followers.

From the groups, the posts they start appearing on the zombie profiles, ensuring even wider distribution.

In fact, the campaigns that activate zombie profiles may be in violation of election laws. The rules require that all election advertising must carry a notice that it is paid content to ensure the public understand it is seeing advertising, not a personal opinion.

Violators face six months in jail or a 30,000 shekel ($8,280) fine. People who either volunteer or accept payment from paid professionals to use their profile could be liable. The catch is that the Elections Commission doesn’t have the ability to enforce the rules in these cases.

In any case, it is easy enough for an ordinary user to identify a zombie profile. As a rule they contain no picture of the person and the “About” section, which carries the usual kind of information like family status, place of residence and workplace, are blank. The “Timeline” consists only of political posts and rarely does a post of that sort not elicit a response.

A typical example is a page under the name Don Slofi Rimon. He is listed as age 32 but only joined Facebook in May 2018. His profile says he lives in Jerusalem but doesn’t say where he works or anything else personal. No pictures of him enjoying dinner at a restaurant, just political posts.

The Facebook phenomenon comes as two researchers said on Monday they had discovered a network of hundreds of fake Twitter accounts that promoted Netanyahu and attacked his political rivals.

No direct connection was found between the network and Netanyahu or Likud, but Kahol Lavan held a press conference to denounce the prime minister as “professional liar.” In response, Netanyahu held a news conference where he presented “Captain George,” whom the researchers had identified as a bot, in person.

But Twitter isn’t widely used by ordinary Israelis, rather by celebrities, media people and academics. Facebook is the social media channel of choice and the one preferred by Netanyahu, who rarely agrees to be interviewed by the mainstream media. To enhance his message, however, he needs “authentic” users to echo his messages to the public.

“Facebook today is the main tool for influencing the public,” a political operative who asked not to be identified told TheMarker.