Single Tweet Offers Glimpse Into Israel Election Fakery

Fakes, covert propaganda and porn: A network of bots on Twitter and fictitious Facebook accounts boosted a candidate in the Likud primary, an investigation shows ahead of Israel's 2022 elections

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
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Aranya’s election video
Aranya’s election video
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

When attorney Susie Ozsinay Aranya posts on Twitter, she usually attracts just a few likes. But on Thursday two weeks ago, when Aranya, a candidate in the Likud primary elections, uploaded an election video, it went viral with 500 likes and 100 retweets. But 36 hours later a strange thing happened: The number of likes started to plummet. The tweet right now counts just 22 retweets.

The initial “success” of her tweet aroused suspicions on the internet, beginning with Haaretz reporter Chaim Levinson. The organization FakeReporter, which monitors online disinformation and fraud, examined the Twitter post as well as the parallel post on Facebook and the accounts that promoted it. It found what it calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior” via a network of ‘bots’ that were started one after the other over a brief period with the aim of creating the false impression of mass support for the candidate.”

Twitter also detected what it believed to be artificial promotion and began to take down some of the accounts it deemed fake – which explains the sudden drop in likes.

A deeper examination by FakeReporter exposes the network of Twitter bots and fictitious Facebook accounts that spread the video and who, the organization believes, is behind the digital promotion of Aranya’s campaign.

The network includes 490 Twitter accounts that were opened automatically just minutes after the campaign video was uploaded. They promoted Aranya’s tweet by liking, retweeting and sharing the video. As is typical with bot networks, the accounts have very few followers (1.4 on average), they follow each other, and comment and retweet each other.

Another characteristic of bot networks, which is identifiable in this case, too, is uploading pornographic content to encourage interactions between real users and the fake accounts. Higher engagement on a fake user's account builds its credibility, which can be exploited in future fake operations. The bot network that promoted Aranya also interacted with another bot network that in recent weeks has been promoting pornographic content on Twitter in Hebrew.

At Facebook, suspicions that bots were at work also emerged. An examination of Aranya’s Facebook page showed that at the start of July, the number of people who had begun following it soared by 3,000 within 24 hours.

Inauthentic engagement

FakeReporter has identified who it believes is behind the digital campaign and the artificial promotion of it across several networks – a social media manager connected with Likud by the name of Lior Harari. “A look at Lior Harari’s activities and profiles suspected of being his ‘sock puppets’ [fake accounts operated by a single person] reveals a system of manipulation operated by Likud supporters with the goal of shaping the election,” the organization says.

Harari has been a social media manager and Likud activist for many years. He has operated the “Likudnikim” website and since 2018 has been identified as the manager of Aranya’s Facebook page. He himself promoted her video in closed WhatsApp and Telegram groups in Likud. On his Twitter account, he replaced the cover image with Aranya’s election poster and put her video at the top of his account just minutes after it had been uploaded.

After Aranya uploaded the video to her Facebook page, Harari began to disseminate it to the many groups he manages, for example, “Likud Branch – Beit Netofa.” In addition, Harari distributed the video to groups he doesn’t manage – some of them political, like “The Real Likud Right Pardons Bibi,” and some of them apolitical, like “Mamasderot/Mamamoshavim,” which are intended for mothers in the southern city Sderot and moshavim, respectively.

“Who would suspect a user who runs a group of young mothers in the Ashdod area or water sports enthusiasts from Eilat?” explains a source who in the past operated fake accounts for political clients. “In groups like these you can artificially increase the virality of a post and a video, and also strengthen your fake account because intense activity buys the user credibility and makes him appear to be real and not political.”

FakeReporter suspects that Harari used automated tools to promote his clients on Facebook: The video post was distributed to lots of groups within a few minutes, accompanied by identical text, “You have to see this.” Other accounts distributed the video in a synchronized manner to scores of other groups (“Kfar Sava Sababa,” “Kinneret on Our Minds,” “Our Carmiel” and others) in the space of a few minutes, something that FakeReporter asserts strengthens the suspicion that behind it was a “sock puppet” operated by Harari.

“They follow Harari’s page, they are friends with each other and use the same text to promote Aranya’s video,” the organization explains.

Apart from disseminating the video, Harari also spent money promoting it, as can be learned from a Facebook feature that reveals sponsored promotion of political ads.

Sock puppets

A number of suspected fake accounts simultaneously shared Aranya’s video and used Harari’s original identical wording, among them one belonging to “Nati Connonlly.” This account, whose profile picture was taken from an overseas photo bank, shared Harari’s post together with the video, with the message “You have to see this,” with scores of groups. In the past, he shared other pictures and posts of Aranya.

“Cary Nelson’’ was revealed in the past as a fake follower of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Describing herself as “a child of Haifa who lives in Kiryat Ata,” she mainly uploaded pictures of herself (taken from pornographic websites) with the goal of attracting followers, until one day she suddenly became interested in politics and began promoting posts from Netanyahu’s Arabic profile. Nelson also shared posts from Harari and two weeks ago began pushing Aranya’s video in many Facebook groups.

According to Cheq, a company that develops systems for identifying fake accounts and erecting defenses against artificial activity online, the number of bots operating in Israel has grown more than 300 percent ahead of the next election. By the time the polls open November 1, the share of fake Twitter accounts in Hebrew is likely to reach 12 percent of the total.

“This provides a glimpse into how a propaganda machine of fakery and manipulation works to shape the minds of voters,” Achiya Shatz, FakeReporter’s CEO, told Haaretz.

“Creating an appearance of popularity and support that doesn’t exist shows disrespect by politicians for their voters. Likud and the other parties must do everything in their power to eradicate anti-democratic phenomena of this type, which are also illegal according to election campaign laws,” he says. “We call on the chairman of the Election Commission to protect the democratic right of Israeli citizens to vote based on reliable information.”

In response, Aranya’s campaign said: “This is the second report in the media dealing with the campaign. Attorney Aranya has no knowledge about the claims. It seems the left is afraid of a candidate who shatters the narrative. It’s a shame that Haaretz is obsessing over my campaign instead of conducting a self-examination of the left-wing parties and the nepotism there. Likud will form the next government with an excellent slate and any of your attempts to blemish this will only strengthen the largest party in Israel.

Lawmaker Gilad Kariv, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, spearheaded the passage of the transparency law, which requires political advertisements to include information on who paid for them. He stated in response to Haaretz that if a candidate buys an ad non-transparently, whether with her own money or with the campaign funds provided by the state, “this is a violation of the law.

“There’s no doubt there are grounds here for a thorough investigation,” he added. “I urge public organizations that are concerned with election ethics as well as private individuals vigilant about this issue to contact the Central Elections Committee regarding all cases of nontransparent campaign ads.”

* Read this story in Hebrew

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