Analysis

Phone Hacking? Fake Twitter Accounts? You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

Campaigners and cybersecurity experts are less worried about hacking or fake Twitter accounts than they are about the Election Day text messages

A banner featuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rolls out of a printer in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

Israelis woke up Monday to a report, compiled by an Israeli watchdog group and revealed by Yedioth Ahronoth and The New York Times, on a network of hundreds of coordinated fake Twitter accounts sending out messages that were pro-Benjamin Netanyahu and anti-Benny Gantz. But the evidence of collusion, aside from the similarity of the messages and the fact that they were retweeted by key members of the Likud campaign and Netanyahu’s son Yair, was rather thin on the ground.

Many of the fake accounts turned out to be accounts of real people, and, in an impromptu press conference, Netanyahu was quick to push back. He sat on the stage with one of the people whose account had been accused of being a bot, a 63-year-old grandfather named Yoram, or @CaptainGeorge8, as he calls himself on Twitter.

This is the second election cyber-scare in two and a half weeks. The first was the leaked report that Iranian hackers had penetrated Gantz’s phone; the former army chief’s Kahol Lavan alliance is Likud’s main challenger in the April 9 election. The initial report, fueled by online rumors and innuendo regarding the material found on the device, temporarily derailed the Kahol Lavan campaign. But despite Netanyahu’s attempts to keep the story alive, no new details emerged, and the ruckus died down after one weekend.

Whether or not the latest report, compiled by the independent Big Bots Project, is debunked, cybersecurity experts believe it has little potential to affect Israeli voters. Twitter isn’t that big in Israel; only around 17 percent of smartphone owners use it, according to a survey carried out last year by the Israel Internet Society for telecom company Bezeq. Or as one political campaigner assessed it, this is no more than a quarter-million Israelis out of 6.3 million eligible voters.

Insider’s game

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an election-campaign press conference at his Jerusalem residence, April 1, 2019.
Gali Tibbon / AFP

“Twitter is a tool used mainly by journalists and politicians in Israel. It’s an insider’s thing. And those who use it are inured to its effects; they have enough filters to judge and work out which news is fake,” says Boaz Dolev, CEO of cybersecurity company ClearSky and former director of the government’s internet portal. “It’s very hard to influence many Israelis through Twitter.”

According to Prof. Karine Nahon, an information scientist and president of the Israel Internet Association, “The typical Israeli voter simply isn’t on Twitter. It’s more of a tool being used by and among opinion-makers.”

As she puts it, “From today’s report I get the impression that some of the Twitter accounts being mentioned have been around for a while and they’re mainly echoing messages that we’re hearing anyway. I’m not sure how much influence they have. Perhaps it has some effect on the public agenda, but I’m not sure.”

That doesn’t mean the cyber-experts or the actual campaigners are indifferent to what may yet come in the last week before Election Day. They all expect something big to drop — especially as Likud’s endgame in the last election was so devastatingly effective. “We know it's going to come. There's nothing we can do to stop it,” says one party leader.

In the last week of the 2015 campaign, Likud sent 18 million text messages, all anonymous, all fake, with racist warnings such as “turnout is three times higher in the Arab community” and “Hamas has called on Israeli Arabs to go out and vote.” This was topped off by Netanyahu’s Election Day video in which he said Arab voters were going to the polls “in droves,” which sealed a last-minute surge in the Likud vote and Netanyahu’s fourth term.

“The leak of the Gantz phone-hacking was premature ejaculation,” says one senior campaign strategist who requested anonymity. “Its effect has worn off. But it could also have prepared the ground for something else that will come out on April 9, or the day before, which people will be told was found on Gantz’s phone. I have no doubt that material has been prepared, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s fake or real. What matters is what people will believe and what will shift them that day.”

Bibi’s bundles

The question isn’t only what the Election Day bombshell will be made of, but how it will be unleashed on voters. Text messaging remains a weapon of choice, but it may have lost its effectiveness.

“All the parties have already bought major bundles of text messages for the last few days,” says one party’s manager for digital campaigning. “It was one of the most effective tools of the last election for Bibi. Now everyone wants them, but the deluge of text messages may be so massive that the voters will simply ignore them and the parties will end up canceling each other out.”

As Dolev puts it, “WhatsApp groups are the great untested election weapon.” WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in Israel; around 90 percent of Israelis who are online use it, he says. “WhatsApp is quick and anonymous, and we’ve already seen what looks like trial runs,” Dolev says.

He notes three recent cases in which false information was spread rapidly by Israeli social media users. One was in January, when Netanyahu announced he was about to deliver “a dramatic statement” — when he said he was twice denied a chance to face the people who turned state’s evidence in the corruption cases against him. A rumor that his police investigators were themselves being questioned by the police ran wild.

In February, gory, fake details about the real murder of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher were distributed as facts. And on March 14, as two Hamas rockets were fired at Tel Aviv, footage appeared purporting to be of an interception by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Actually, that footage was more than 4 years old. Some news organizations initially treated these rumors as facts.

“We’ve seen that at dramatic moments, these fake news stories can spread very quickly and muddle everyone,” Dolev says. “And it could be critical on Election Day.”

Nahon, the internet association president, is also concerned about the havoc such reports could wreak at a critical juncture. “At the end of this week, just before the election, when the media is no longer allowed to publish polls and is usually careful about doing too many interviews with politicians, is the perfect time for a fake story to be spread by WhatsApp.”