A new campaign on Telegram is trying to tarnish Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The campaign is an attempt to rehash an older disinformation operation that saw rumors, photos and videos of Gantz circulated online after his phone was allegedly hacked during previous election cycles.
Investigators from Fake Reporter, a watchdog which tracks misinformation, false users and fake reports online, uncovered the new activity.
They said that it is being carried out by a user that appeared to be a malicious online influencer with typical Iranian characteristics, and which has already been flagged by Facebook an attempt at foreign interference.
The investigators explained that this is an extensive network that operates simultaneously on several social media services such as Telegram, Instagram and Facebook. The network has been exposed as the entity behind a new Instagram account that spread a viral video mocking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that received roughly 17,000 viewers in an hour.
This week, Haaretz reported on the reappearance of the fake Facebook account disguised as an anti-Netanyahu protester named Noa Shamir.
Fake Reporter activists and citizen journalist Yossi Dorfman had already alerted Facebook two weeks ago to the matter, when on Holocaust Memorial Day the fake account posted a picture comparing Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler. After the report, the account disappeared and the activists assumed Facebook had blocked it, but then it reappeared.
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On Tuesday, Fake Reporter said another suspect account had returned, also associated with the same web influencer.
“With the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks in the background, the malicious network attempts to breathe new life into Gantz’s so-called phone hacking affair and the photoes leaked from it,” Fake Reporter said, referring to the incident in which, during the last election campaign, Gantz’s smartphone was hacked, allegedly by Iran.
Fake Reporter’s investigators also noted that the network posted on Telegram fake tweets purportedly in the name of Yair Netanyahu and right-wing journalist Amit Segal.
These fake posts reached hundreds of thousands of viewers, suspected as non-organic, with the purpose of going artificially viral, the investigators tweeted.
The Telegram channel used by the original campaign has been relatively quiet recently, but over the past few days it has also come back to like. This time it seems that its operators have chosen to spread false information about Iran and to incite against Gantz. To this end, the operators spread fake tweets in the name of Netanyahu and journalists Amihai Stein and Amit Segal.
On Saturday a false tweet was posted purporting to be Yair Netanyahu, with photos of Gantz. In one he is shown with his wife and in another he is shown with an unidentified woman. “We cannot confirm the authenticity and source of the pictures and therefore they have been censored,” the investigators said.
The fake tweet, in poor Hebrew, said:
End of the political life of Gantz:
Fake Reporter’s investigators said the Telegram channel is the most popular one of any used by the web influencer, but at least this time it seems that the dissemination of the fake information was limited. According to Telegram, 217,000 users saw the post, but there were only a few responses, suggesting that the views were fake.
The investigators called for the defense establishment to begin working against the ongoing campaigns on the network.
"An anonymous entity, suspected as foreign, is attempting to interfere in the election in Israel. A civil body is leading in the removal of its content and trying to warn security officials, who are ignoring the threat,” the investigators wrote. “Today, during a time of tense dialogue between the superpowers and Iran and on the threshold of a violent confrontation, the Israeli defense minister finds himself a target of a web influencer operation that has already been reported to the authorities,” they added.
The investigators noted that The Fake Reporter was established to fight against malicious and fake activity on the web but “we don’t have all the details nor should we. We expect the state to take responsibility for the security of Israel’s citizens – also on the web. When anonymous entities use dark tools to shape the consciousness of Israelis – the security establishment must intervene.”