Inside the Secret Israeli Industry of Fake Facebook Profiles

An investigation reveals a network of fictitious Facebook accounts — all linked to one Israeli firm — and sheds light on how these avatars and their operators evade detection, pushing commercial and political content

Refaella Goichman
Liat Levi
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Fake profile photo of Rachel Gan Or
Fake profile photo of Rachel Gan OrCredit: Screenshot from Rachel Gan Or's fake Facebook profile
Refaella Goichman
Liat Levi

Rachel Gan Or was born in Safed and today lives in Kfar Sava. She has 139 Facebook friends and her page shows an idyllic picture with her partner. Her face appears on lifestyle blogs, in articles entitled “Small gestures that can make a big change in your relationship”, and she has a Pinterest page called “Living happily ever after.”

But most of these details are false. The profile picture was taken from a photo database. At the Yoav Gera School for Sound, where Gan Or claims to have studied, nobody remembers a student with a name like that, nor did they recognize her profile picture.

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At least 125 of her Facebook friends are profiles whose pictures also come from internet photo databases. At least 12 of her friends are profiles of commercial entities, such as the local branch of a café chain and a well-known diet guru. Among her genuine Facebook friends, no one who was asked, including the Channel 12 news correspondent Yollan Cohen, could authenticate Gan Or’s existence.

The reason is that Gan Or is part of a network of Facebook accounts created to reach closed groups under the guise of being a real person. The aim of the networks, and many others like it, is to plant political and commercial messages.

Attorney Michael Atlan, director of the Consumer Protection and Fair Trade Authority, admits that the authority doesn’t have the tools to contend with concealed and fictitious advertising. “Misleading consumers is a violation of the Consumer Protection Law. Anything that could mislead a consumer about an important detail in the transaction, and in this case – a false review, is by necessity misleading,” he says.

Illustration
Illustration

“Legislation will always lag behind in social and technological change, all the more so in an evolving field like high-tech and online commerce. But we’re not giving up … our enforcement section is recording a lot of successes, but to be stronger in the field we will need more people and more power …. If we get to court we must prove beyond any doubt that a violation of the law has been committed.”

An examination by TheMarker reveals that a large percentage of fictitious accounts are connected to The Leaders, a marketing firm that specializes in social media influencing. Shortly before publication of this investigation, and after the editors requested responses from The Leaders and other firms, changes were made in some of the profiles, such as the profile picture or the name of the person on the account.

The Leaders is one of several firms that monitor social networks, mainly in closed discussion groups for clients. When they identify a discussion relevant to their clients, the firm notifies its network of responders, including many who apparently use fictitious profiles. They enter the discussion to promote a client’s product or service under the guise of being an ordinary person.

‘Best is Meitav Dash’

For instance, in March 2019, Gan Or joined a closed Facebook group for expectant mothers where she asked, “Do you need to invest in a provident fund for your children? Who has the best management fees?” Nine mothers responded, of whom seven recommended the investment house Meitav Dash.

“Definitely Meitav Dash! Highly recommended! I did it there for my two children after an in-depth examination of several places,” replied one mother. Another wrote, “The best management fees are at Meitav Dash after a market survey we conducted – I’m really satisfied with them.”

Six months later Gan Or posted a similar message in the same mothers’ group, also on the subject of provident funds. That post elicited eight responses, all of which recommended that she open a provident fund with Meitav Dash.

The following August, Sivan Shoham – a sworn cat lover, a Facebook friend of Gan Or’s whose picture also comes from the database – asked about a provident fund. “Urgent! Which provident fund is preferable? Phoenix, Menorah or Altshuler?” Although Meitav Dash was not mentioned in the post, all seven responders recommended it.

Social networks are fertile ground for manipulation, but the use of fictitious profiles by paid influencers is usually thought to be confined to political campaigns, most famously the Cambridge Analytica affair in the United States. However, TheMarker has found that businesses use the same tools.

It’s not clear how widespread the phenomenon is. Facebook insists that it is constantly uncovering and removing fictitious profiles. However, as opposed to bots, it’s very hard to identify fake accounts opened up by a real person.

A source familiar with the company’s operations alleges that The Leaders does, in fact, have a database of fictitious profiles it uses mainly to participate in online discussions. The source said many businesses do the same thing, either by contracting out the service to a firm like The Leaders or by assigning an employee to engage in social media discussions.

To be sure, not all of those who join the discussion for these firms are fictitious. The first line of defense is so-called “ambassadors,” real people, usually satisfied customers of the product or service being promoted. They are instructed to respond when a relevant discussion comes up in a closed group and are often provided with possible responses. According to the source, these ambassadors are compensated, sometimes by invitations to events, other times by a 55-shekel ($16) coupon or gift of similar value for every six responses they elicit.

The phenomenon of the brand ambassadors originated in the world of internet influencers. Today it’s clear that if you see an Instagram picture of a celebrity touting the jeans she’s wearing, her new face mask or a foot cream, she is probably getting paid for the post. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to get paid for promoting products on social networks.

An influencer is defined as someone with at least 10,000 followers on any social media; a micro-influencer is someone with at least 5,000 followers. They are compensated by sponsors according to their popularity on the internet, in prices ranging from 250 shekels per post for a micro-influencer to up to thousands of shekels for celebrities. Ambassadors are ordinary people – a next-door neighbor, the mother from kindergarten, a consumer.

According to the source, fictitious profiles are employed if the ambassadors fail to reach their monthly intervention quotas. Social networks allow information to be disseminated freely and usually without supervision, a loophole that enables businesses to do that.

Attorney Michael Atlan, director of the Consumer Protection and Fair Trade Authority.
Attorney Michael Atlan, director of the Consumer Protection and Fair Trade Authority.Credit: Moti Milrod

Efrat Itamar Sela, the CEO of The Leaders, termed the accusations of fictitious profiles “false and recycled.” “Our ambassadors make recommendations based only on personal experience and on objective consumer surveys that we send to tens of thousands of consumers.”

Efrat Itamar Sela, the CEO of The Leaders
Efrat Itamar Sela, the CEO of The LeadersCredit: Nati Gold

A contract obtained by TheMarker illustrates the financial arrangements between The Leaders and corporate clients. The Leaders offered a package of 100 social media interventions per month in exchange for a retainer of 6,000 shekels before value-added tax. The client bears the cost of compensating the ambassadors for their services.

The method is explained on the company’s website: “First, we locate your most satisfied customers, those who wouldn’t dream of replacing your brand. Next, we use our advanced technology to find the discussions relevant to your brand on the network. Finally, just like a GPS, we send the satisfied customers to them to recommend you. The beauty of the system is that because we’re using satisfied customers, we’re actually asking them for one thing: to tell the truth.”

But that isn’t entirely true. TheMarker has found examples where fictitious profiles both start the discussion and react to it. Last January, for example, Gan Or asked for a recommendation from her mothers’ group for a place that would help her to lose weight.

Friends indeed

Her “friends” Sivan Shoham and Merav David, two names who have responded to other posts of Gan Or, responded immediately that they recommend Dr. Raz. “Check with them. Service comes first, and I’m very satisfied with the results,” responded Shoham. David added. “I’m in the process – and already see a change.”

In response, the Medical Weight Loss Center – Dr. Raz said: “The center has never awarded compensation, in any way or form, in return for a recommendation about receiving treatment. Like many organizations, the center carries out marketing activity in the usual manner.”

In another instance a year ago, May Levy posted on the “Mothers Recommend” group: “Hi, my daughter’s school backpack is torn, where can you find a good backpack for kindergarten right now?” The only two responses recommended the Kravitz chain’s website.

In Levy’s profile picture, she is seen kissing two babies, but her cover picture is a generic sunset photo and her profile was opened in the name of 33may.leaders. In reply to a query by TheMarker, one of the responders said she didn’t remember whether she really bought backpacks on the website, because there’s a Kravitz store near her house, but she said she did buy backpacks somewhere on the internet for her children. She added that she is an ambassador for The Leaders.

A lawsuit filed by Teva Pharmaceuticals in the Tel Aviv District Court in late June against Abbott Laboratories and The Leaders, for 40 million shekels, provides a glimpse of the scope of the fake Facebook phenomenon.

Last September, a flurry of parental complaints began appearing on Facebook about their children’s reactions to the Nutrilon milk substitute formulas sold by Teva. Posts reported children suffering from diarrhea and vomiting, and claimed that the formula had been changed. Teva, which controls about 20% of the baby food market, was worried because it had echoes of the 2003 Remedia affair, where three babies died and more than 20 became sick from a faulty baby formula marketed by the company.

Although the Health Ministry and Nutricia, the company that manufactures Nutrilon, insisted that there was no problem with the product and no change in the formula, Teva was suffering major damage due to the claims. It was suspicious because Nutrilon is sold all over the world, but the claims were only being made in Israel.

Teva conducted an investigation and found, according to the lawsuit that followed, that Abbott, which sells the competing baby formula Similac, retained The Leaders to use its ambassadors as well as fake profiles to post disparaging remarks online about Nutrilon. Teva claims in the suit that the aim was “to damage the brand’s sales and to carry out a ‘targeted assassination’ against Nutrilon. The method that was chosen was a clandestine social network campaign on dedicated parents’ groups.”

The parents’ reactions on Facebook attest to the depth of the influence fictitious profiles can have. A new father, who posted on Facebook after the lawsuit, wrote: “You don’t take a risk of 0.000001% when it comes to your infant, and it’s enough that one mother responded on Facebook and wrote the words ‘Remedia babies’ to make you nervous, to keep track and try to see what’s happening here. I don’t know whether there was a guiding hand here, I don’t know what’s true and what’s false. But I know that if they caused me, a rational person, to drive pharmacists crazy because of a logo, when it’s my third child, that’s a sign that parents had lost it. And when it’s your baby it’s easy to make you crazy.”

In response to the Teva allegations, Efrat Sela Itamar, CEO of The Leaders, said that “things are being clarified at present in a courtroom in the context of a legal dispute and there all the answers will be given.”

A Facebook logo is pictured on an Apple iPad.
A Facebook logo is pictured on an Apple iPad.Credit: Regis Duvignau/REUTERS

Abbott said, “We are committed to ethical and responsible communication regarding all our products. The claims made in the article are part of a pending lawsuit. We will reply to the claims during the legal proceeding.”

Baby and children’s products is one of the hottest topics of discussion on social networks. Most of the activity is in groups, and many parents rely on “crowd wisdom” to get recommendations from real users who they assume are providing them with an authentic, first-hand experience.

Sela Itamar, CEO of The Leaders, realized the potential of the parents’ groups. “Companies spend millions on social networks, and a good example is the world of mothers of babies. It’s clear to all the major players in the market that in the world of baby products, disposable diapers and so on, mothers make the purchasing decisions on Facebook, via other mothers in the groups,” she said in a podcast interview last October.

“That’s why companies of this type buy banks of campaigns from us with micro-influencers – mothers who are on Facebook, who every two months log onto Facebook and promote another product belonging to the brand.”

Transparency required

Sela Itamar said her company insists on transparency and on labeling the post as a paid post or one written in cooperation with a commercial company.

Another firm that provides discussion-monitoring services and network intervention is the Comversation. It also dispatches ambassadors to closed Facebook groups and other social networks for many clients. The firm manages its pool of recommenders via a dedicated app called “Hamifargen.”

The company’s ambassadors download the app to their personal smartphone and connect to their Facebook account. That enables them to receive an alert whenever an online response is required from them – the app “manages the tasks” of the ambassadors by telling them which discussion to respond to, which brand they are promoting and what messages they should be giving.

“When you receive a task in a specific group, we recommend that you make sure to join discussions on various different subjects – two or three discussions, to prevent a situation where you are writing only about one brand or another and arouse suspicions that you’re advertising them.” Managers rate the ambassadors’ responses. “We aspire to creativity, originality, conveying the message in a convincing and interesting way, in a manner that suits the forum in which you responded,” according to the guide.

Comversation said in response: “Our specialty is to start and manage communities of satisfied surfers for brands, in a way that fulfills the objectives of the activity in the best possible way, while maintaining conduct based on the surfer’s genuine opinion, in the spirit of the community and the brand.

“No surfer has ever been instructed to write something that is not true and certainly not something that is not positive. The Mifargen app is a unique invention that enables us to operate such clubs accurately and with transparency, and to enable every surfer to participate only in discussions that suit him, at a time and in a place that suit him, in a manner that doesn’t undermine the organic discussion on the network but connects customers who make recommendations to customers who are trying to decide and the information they’re looking for.”

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