Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party’s election campaign has upgraded its use of Facebook to recruit volunteers and win over voters.
Most prominent among the efforts was an automated message sent from Netanyahu’s official Facebook account this week stating that a left-wing government would rely on “Arabs who want to annihilate us all.”
Likud is using social media to recruit people to help convince members of the public to vote for the party, providing ready-made messages that they can send to friends. “I am contributing my time because we cannot have a dangerous left-wing government arise next week with Lapid, Odeh, Gantz and Lieberman,” one message reads, referring to Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz of the Kahol Lavan party, Ayman Odeh of the Arab Joint List, and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu. “A secular left-wing weak government would rely on Arabs who want to destroy us all – women, children and men, and will enable a nuclear Iran that will eliminate us.”
The automatic chat message concludes: “I therefore ask you to be the envoy of the prime minister, and bring three friends and family members on Tuesday, and make sure they vote Likud. Thank you [name], I’m counting on you!”
After the media reported on the chat messages, Likud denied that the prime minister was involved, saying it was the mistake of a junior staffer. On Thursday, in a radio interview, Netanyahu disassociated himself from the messages. “Think rationally. I am a serious person,” he told his interviewers. “I have friends in Arab countries. What is this nonsense?” In the past, one of Netanayhu’s campaign managers said the prime minister was very involved in social media.
In response to the racist content, Facebook announced that it was suspending the Likud party’s use of automated messaging for 24 hours.
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Netanyahu’s social media team is not the only group assisting the prime minister to shape the social media feed. Recently, another method was uncovered, involving either the creation or taking over of Facebook pages to spread pro-Netanyahu messages. It is not clear who is behind these efforts.
Eyal Kimor, an expert analyst on open-source intelligence gathering, posted a long list of social media pages that had been opened for various purposes over the past decade whose users recently discovered were posting content relating to Netanyahu and Likud.
For example, the Hebrew-language Facebook group entitled “Gilad Erdan, Strategic Affairs Minister” has been renamed “Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu.” A group called “Yair Lapid, the Next Prime Minister” was changed to “Continuing with Netanyahu and Mahal,” a reference to the Likud’s Hebrew acronym on its ballot paper. A group called “Believing in Acre – for City Council” was altered to “Believing in Likud.” A group called “Daring Love” was changed to “Bibi King of Israel.”
Kimor said the method was similar to what Russian hackers have used in the past, “attracting followers to a page with certain messages and then sending other messages through it.”
There was also a page called “The Most Moroccan Group in the World,” which attracted 38,000 followers and was then changed two years ago to “My Bibi,” a reference to Netanyahu’s nickname. Another pro-Netanyahu page was launched in 2014 under one name, and has since changed its name six times, most recently in 2017. A review of the page over the years shows that in large part, it has featured positive content on Netanyahu and been critical of his political rivals.
Explaining how he found the transformed pages, Kimor said: “I went into Yair Netanyahu’s Facebook page and checked which pages he shares content from,” referring to one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sons. “And from there, I got to other pages and groups.”
Kimor speculates that over the years, unknown individuals opened Facebook groups and pages to attract followers – and to later change their content overnight. A different assumption has it that such pages were acquired from their original owners.
“On Facebook, there are networks of fictitious users who become integrated into communities and pages along with regular users, and then spread political messages. Many people don’t have the sensitivity to understand that these are fake users behind whom there are interests that are not transparent,” Kimor said.