A network of fake accounts active on social media has been pushing demoralizing messages targeting Israelis during the latest round of fighting with Hamas.
The network was first revealed by Fake Reporter, a civilian watchdog that tracks disinformation and inauthentic behavior online.
A major part of the findings was independently confirmed by Affogata, which performs big-data analytics on social media and shared its materials with Haaretz.
Fake Reporter mapped out a network of some 120 fake accounts it had found, which it published on Twitter. It suggested the network is most likely Iranian – or at least using tactics used by Iran – and that its aim is to “increase fear and desperation in Israel.”
Affogata’s analysis of the different accounts led to an account it identified as the “leader” of this network. The user, who goes by the alias “Esther,” was also found to be central in Fake Reporter’s investigation.
“Esther,” like many other accounts found by Fake Reporter, tweeted that her life was "miserable” and that life in Israel was “terrifying” because of Hamas’ endless rockets, which they blamed on “Netanyahu’s hold on power.”
Corroborating Fake Reporter’s finding, Affogata mapped out the network and found that the main account set the tone for a wider network, which could be identified by the fact that users shared not only hashtags but precise language.
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For example, these accounts (both confirmed by Haaretz) made a lot of spelling errors and in many cases involved accounts that were created only last month – a telltale sign of inauthentic activity.
Though most of the Twitter handles were a random collection of numbers and letters, the user names these accounts displayed were all of Israeli names such as “Esther,” “Avigail,” “Noa,” “Sara” and “Abraham.”
Moreover, in many cases they tweeted out the exact same message.
Posts claiming that “I don’t feel safe in my home” or “The IDF has lost control of the situation” appeared simultaneously on large swaths of the network. Others call to leave Israel.
According to Fake Reporter’s analysis, one of the biggest themes being pushed out by the network is that the Israeli army was weak – which it found was used in over 200 posts. Other key terms posted by the network were “Hamas” and “fear” (which appeared over 300 times, respectively) and “death” or “dead” (130 times).
According to the watchdog, though many of the accounts were opened on May 14, they joined a larger network of fake accounts it has been following for a while.
Fake Reporter told Haaretz that there may be up to 200 additional accounts active in this network. The different accounts all followed each other and amplified the message. That behavior, it says, is in line with previous instances of Iranian disinformation campaigns targeting Israel.
This was true both in terms of the network’s mode of operation, but also in terms of the actual content that sought to stoke tensions within Israel. For instance, one account using a pro-Israel hashtag wrote that “We need to leave Israel,” lamenting how dangerous it had become. Other fake accounts in the network used pro-Palestinian hashtags about Gaza being under attack.
One hallmark of the fake users is poor Hebrew and fact-checking skills. For example, one post claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had instigated the fighting in order to hold onto “the presidency.”
Many times, the accounts also tagged prominent accounts and responded to their posts: Israel’s official Twitter account was trolled by the users, for instance.
Fake Reporter believes this is very likely a new network that has yet to fully establish itself.
Though its effect was limited, the network is part of a growing and worrisome trend, Fake Reporter says. In recent months, the watchdog led an investigation into a number of fake accounts and inauthentic networks of users, most likely linked to Iran, which were taken down after the activity was flagged to Facebook.
A representative for Fake Reporter told Haaretz that though in line with past Iranian tactics, it is also possible that Hamas or Hezbollah, both considered proxies for the Islamic republic, may also be behind this operation.
Affogata also found that some of these accounts were also active on Instagram, where they published “Stories” (video posts that disappear after 24 hours) with similar messaging. Affogata discovered the network following a tip from Emanuel Miller, an analyst at Honest Reporting.
Fake Reporter has worked with Haaretz on a number of investigations, including exposing an attempt to create a “Stop the Steal” campaign in Israel during this spring’s election.
It has also helped Haaretz reveal targeted campaigns against the anti-Netanyahu protest movement, including one case in which the identity of Jewish-American philanthropists was stolen and fake accounts were created in their name, in a bid to trick protest leaders into revealing information in return for donations.