A number of leading Israeli activists in the anti-Netanyahu protest movement have been targeted in a catfishing operation involving fake accounts purporting to be American-Jewish philanthropists, Haaretz has learned.
The Israelis received messages from users who were claiming to be Jewish-Americans donors interested in providing financial support. However, an examination of the accounts revealed them to be fake. An identity theft complaint has been lodged with the FBI on their behalf.
Catfishing is the term used for when a false online persona is created in order to dupe potential victims. In this case, at least two fake profiles were used. Activists say they believe the goal of the operation was to learn more about the protest movement and its key players.
The protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which started last spring, are led by a loose coalition of groups with different aims. These range from anti-corruption to support for the local arts industry.
One group to emerge from the movement is Fake Reporter, which uses volunteers online to identify fake accounts and battle disinformation being spread about the protesters and demonstrations.
At the end of December, explains Ori Kol, a prominent activist involved in Fake Reporter, at least five different members of various protest groups received messages on Twitter from a user claiming to be Michael A. Morris, the owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Press.
Though the account seemed genuine, using an actual photo of Morris and accurately identifying his position in the account’s bio, the messages raised suspicion among activists, who shared them with Fake Reporter.
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Morris could not be reached for comment, but Haaretz has independently confirmed that he did not own the Twitter account.
“The messages were in poor English and all of them were supposedly aimed at giving us donations. The promise of money is a classic technique used to try to penetrate protest movements or gain information about them,” says Kol, who adds that his group quickly launched an investigation after receiving the fake messages.
Screen captures supplied by the group and reviewed by Haaretz reveal that great detail was put into Morris’ profile to make it look legitimate. It also shows how the same message was sent out to the different activists.
“Here in Atlanta some of my top wealthy Israeli gus [sic] are going to help and support any movement against Bibi, because they believe that he is really a corrupt guy and politically, economically, geopolitically has darkened the bright future we assumed for Israel. anyway we can support you or any of your friends. please let us know what you nee [sic]. love. Michael,” read one such message.
In another message, “Michael Morris” wrote of Netanyahu: “We want to get rid of this fucking monster.” The account then asked the activist, “Do you take part in any protest against bibi? we can support you and your friends any time any way, just need to tell us.”
When the activist declined the donations by explaining that “this protest is totally independent,” “Morris” responded: “So, what do you want us to do for you and for your friends?”
In a message to another protest leader, “Morris” asked for an interview with the activist to better understand “your attitudes, ideas and your goal.” The message added: “Here in Atlanta some of [sic] top Israeli billionaires are going to support the protest against Bibi.”
All of the activists turned down the donations. One noted that though “I really need it, [my] conscience will not allow me.”
That comment prompted “Morris” to say: “If you don’t take money, then may you do us a favor? Are there any people you know need financial support for their movement, except the one you introduced [us to]?” The activist suggested reaching out to the groups Crime Minister, the Black Flags and Kumi Israel, three of the leading protest groups. “Morris” then asks: “Who are the leaders?”
The Fake Reporter investigation revealed another suspicious account, this one purportedly belonging to another Jewish American active in philanthropy: Max Kleinman of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. The Kleinman account was never used to reach out to activists, but did follow a number of them. The real Max Kleinman was CEO of the New Jersey federation branch for almost 20 years, until 2014.
Kleinman confirmed to Haaretz in a phone call on Monday that he was not the owner of the Twitter account, and that a complaint for identity theft had been lodged on his behalf with the FBI. The FBI does not comment on ongoing investigations.
“I’m an American and I don’t intervene in Israeli politics,” he says. “The issue is that my name and even my email was used for political purposes without my consent. I was the head of the local Jewish federation and my positions are important to me. There are other individuals who were targeted too, and this is a serious problem,” he adds.
When asked whether his role in the Jewish community made the identity theft more severe, Kleinman said the issue had nothing to do with politics. “Someone stole my identity and used it for purposes I did not consent to – that’s the real transgression, and it’s criminal,” he says. “I hope the authorities in both Israel and the United States find those responsible.”
Kleinman says he first discovered his identity had been stolen through contacts made by the Israeli activists.
“Through our contacts, we reached out to the victims in the U.S. and discovered that though the accounts used their photos and even detailed their real biographies, they had no idea about these accounts,” Kol confirms.
In the case of the fake Michael Morris account, there was also another fake account created on Facebook, which detailed his biography and helped lend credibility to his Twitter profile. Both accounts were flagged to Twitter and Facebook, which have since removed down.
Small digital trail
Kol suggests the two Jewish Americans were targeted because “they’re not that active online and don’t have too big of a digital trail behind them, so it’s unlikely they or someone they know would notice the fake accounts. Meanwhile, they’re also real people active in the Jewish-American philanthropy space, so it’s reasonable [to assume] they would have some access to donations.”
He adds that the incident can be seen as an attack on the Jewish-American establishment. “These two people were picked for a reason, and this could have created the appearance that the Jewish federations in the U.S. were interested in toppling Netanyahu,” he says.
The incident is indicative of a “methodological, systematic and well-funded operation” against the protest movement, Kol says. He believes the case is especially concerning as it shows both the level of detail going into these fake accounts and how – as long as they only send private messages – they may be impossible to discover.
He also speculates that the people behind the attack are “right-wing activists [in Israel] who have instructions to undermine the protest movement and are using [like-minded] people abroad to help them.”
This is the latest in a string of incidents in which the protest movement has been targeted by rogue online campaigns. In mid-January, Haaretz’s Bar Peleg and Oded Yaron reported that a fake Twitter account purporting to belong to Or-ly Barlev – another prominent activist who frequently hosts live streams from demonstrations – was also created. It was taken down after Fake Reporter flagged it to Twitter.
Haaretz also reported that activists in the protest movement were targeted by what they called a false flag operation that saw fake users enter different groups or debates linked to the protest and make inflammatory statements. In one case, a fake user made a death threat against Netanyahu and the prime minister shared a screen capture of the comment as proof of “violent incitement” against him by demonstrators.
In a statement about the incident, Fake Reporter said: “Political use of identity theft and fake accounts are a direct assault on the personal safety of Israeli citizens, and an attack on the foundations of a democratic society. Unfortunately, this is not a singular event and joins a long list of attacks against anti-Netanyahu protesters, some of which are illegal if not criminal. The fact that those involved in protests against the prime minister are faced with such threats in a democratic society is concerning.
“As citizens,” they continued, “we must protect ourselves from any hostile online activity and Fake Reporter was set up for this reason – to serve as a civilian platform that will allow the public to report fake activity online, so that together we can stop it.”