A sophisticated influence operation pushing out disinformation about Israel and the Middle East was discovered this week. The website masqueraded as the personal blog of Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn, though it was opened without his knowledge or consent, and tried to use his status as a respected journalist to push out so-called fake news related to the region.
The website, which is in English, looks like an inconspicuous blog and includes an organized archive with the full text of hundreds of real columns written by Benn for Haaretz over the past decade. However, among the real articles taken in their entirety from the Haaretz.com English-language website, three fake articles appear under Benn’s name. The bogus articles appeared to be designed to escalate tensions in the region.
The website alufbenn.com was launched anonymously in 2021 by people unknown to Benn. The site seemed real, its archive filled with real content, and it even had a biography attached – a quick perusal wouldn’t arouse any suspicions.
About 200 pieces that really were written by Benn for Haaretz from 2012 on were uploaded to the site in an organized fashion. But among them were also three entirely fake pieces on diplomatic and political subjects that Benn never wrote. In contrast to the real articles, the fake ones were written in poor English and were rife with spelling and grammatical errors. Nevertheless, after they were posted online, these fake stories were cited by media outlets like Hezbollah’s Al-Manar as well as Greek, Turkish and Yemeni websites.
One of the three bogus articles is a fake interview Benn purportedly conducted with the CEO of an Israeli high-tech company that monitors and analyzes commercial maritime traffic. The headline alleges that the company promised the United States to curb “95 percent” of Russian maritime activity.
But the “interview” is entirely fake. The text and the way it is framed appear to be designed to give the reader the impression that Israeli tech companies are now on the front lines of the Biden administration’s bid to harm Russia. The article makes it seem like Israel’s tech is doing the U.S. bidding as part of Israel’s attempt to influence Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran. More than that, the article appears to be designed to inflame tensions between Israel and Russia over the international sanctions imposed on the latter following its invasion of Ukraine.
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In another fake article, Benn interviews former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem on Israeli-Turkish relations, during which fake Rotem “explains” the strategic links between Jerusalem and Ankara and hints that the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident was orchestrated by the two countries.
Turkey is presented by the fake Rotem as an Israeli puppet both in connection with the Palestinians and in its relations with Iran. “Turkey has contributed greatly in limiting the ability of Palestinian groups. They pushed the political wing of Hamas to take sides against the Syrian regime and even to take up arms against it in some cases during the Syrian civil war. We want Turkey to replace Iran in supporting Hamas and other Palestinian groups," he is quoted as saying.
In the fake interview, it is also claimed that Israel is involved in a project in southern Turkey (GAP) to erect 22 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which would harm the flow of water to Iraq and Iran. Here, too, the Israeli-Turkish connection is portrayed as an attempt to disrupt regional hegemony – from Baghdad to Azerbaijan.
This fake article was disseminated and quoted by Al-Manar in French and other French-language websites. It seems that those behind the fake site were still trying to increase its audience and improve its ranking in search engine results and that the full force of the operation had not yet come into effect.
In the last of the three fake articles, which was uploaded in June, Haaretz’s editor-in-chief allegedly reveals that Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll met secretly in Israel’s Cairo embassy with Rashad al-Alimi, the chairman of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council. The two are said to have agreed on Israel’s cooperating with the Yemini leader in his fight against Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran. In exchange for the military and intelligence aid, Yemen would agree to recognize Israel and pursue normalization.
It is also asserted that Israel agreed to work to promote international recognition of Yemen’s new government in exchange for Yemen’s agreeing to ignore the Palestinian issue.
“According to reported negotiations, it was agreed to open an office for Israeli military advisors in Aden within a month. In return, Israel would get an embassy in the capital, Sana’a, and the Yemeni state would deal with it like any other country after the Yemeni war ended without caring about what would happen at the time in Palestine, and Israel would have to help Legitimacy and international recognition of the new cabinet in Yemen, sending weapons, equipment, and heavy air support to the Al-Alimi government and his forces,” the fake report read.
An examination of social networks shows that links to the fake website haven’t appeared much on Twitter, in posts or in open Facebook groups, and have been shared only a handful of times. The fake interview with Rotem appeared in only one public post on Twitter and got only a few-score exposures on Facebook. The provocative story on the secret meeting between the senior Yemeni official and Roll got no Facebook exposure and was tweeted only 12 times, in most cases by what appear to be fake accounts. It elicited a few views.
The site itself was linked in only a handful of posts, including in a group linked to the Al-Arabiya network.
The domain name alufbenn.com was purchased 15 years ago by Benn himself, but he never used it. About a year ago, his rights to it expired, after which they were bought by the operators of the fake site. The site was registered in November 2021 and operates from a server belonging to the U.S. company Namecheap, which lets its customers stay anonymous. Links to the site began to appear on the web only at the end of 2021.
The fictitious operation operated largely under the radar until a report on a website close to the Houthi rebels got the attention of Persian Gulf media, and a journalist contacted Benn to confirm it. Benn denied any connection to the report, saying it was the first time he had ever heard of the blog where it appeared.
For now there is no conclusive evidence about who is behind the site, but most of the websites that promoted the fake articles online are connected in one way or another to Iranian interests.
ClearSky, the Israeli cybersecurity company, has revealed that Iran operates scores of news sites in different languages that it uses to disseminate “fake news” side by side with reprints of real news stories carefully edited to align them with Iranian interests. The sites, among them one called “Tel Aviv Times,” are helped by scores of fake profiles on different social media that distribute the content.
In 2018, a fake website that portrayed itself as belonging to Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, disseminated false reports that former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo had exposed Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman as a Russian spy. That site was also run from a server operated by Namecheap.
A year before, a website that looked convincingly like it belonged to Haaretz disseminated a fake article that received a lot of attention online alleging to reveal secret investments worth millions of dollars in Israel by the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.