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1 Apr, 2019 16:50

Netanyahu campaign boosted by slander bots calling opponent 'mentally ill', 'gay', 'rapist' – report

Netanyahu campaign boosted by slander bots calling opponent 'mentally ill', 'gay', 'rapist' – report

Ahead of parliamentary elections in Israel next week, a watchdog group claims to have exposed a network of fake accounts supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and slandering his opponents, including false rape accusations.

In a campaign already marred by pending corruption and bribery charges, Netanyahu's Likud party certainly does not need another scandal with eight days left before Israelis head to the polls. Nonetheless, a selectively released report by Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam of social-media watchdog group Big Bots Project claims that a nexus of hundreds of fake accounts has been disseminating messages of support for the ruling party, while maliciously attacking their opponents. While it is difficult to say exactly how many fake accounts were actually involved, the project identified at least 400.

The researchers believe that aside from bots, some individuals were hired to run multiple Twitter accounts in order to engage in coordinated social media influence campaigns. While there is no explicit evidence to link either Netanyahu or the party to the coordinated manipulation activity, the malign network has operated with suspicious proximity to Likud's own election strategies. The fake accounts have been retweeted by Likud campaign officials, and even the prime minister's son.

"The network operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumors," the report said, according to an advanced copy sent to the New York Times. "On its busiest days, the network sends out thousands of tweets a day." The tweets, which were all in Hebrew, are said to have received around 2.5 million hits.

As Netanyahu's long-held position came under increasing threat from his leading opponent, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, the bot army began to set its sights on the army general. According to the report, the fake accounts spread a number of sensational rumors about Gantz, including accusations that he is a rapist and a homosexual.

With Likud itself running low-ball ads like one in which the camera zooms in on Gantz's face while playing the Theme from Psycho, the bots' tendency to pick up on the party's cues for how to attack their opponent was particularly troubling to the authors. They also noted an uptick in activity around critical moments in the campaign, such as when the indictments against Netanyahu were first announced.

Gantz has personally cited the report as evidence that Netanyahu is attempting to "steal the election," accusing the Israeli leader of running a "terror of consciousness" campaign against voters. He has gone as far as to say that if the prime minister retains his post, it will signal the end of democracy in Israel.

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Likud has denied outright any connection to the illicit social media activity, and even cast doubt on the report itself.

"All of the Likud's digital activity is entirely authentic and is based on the great support of the citizens of Israel for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the great achievements of the Likud," party spokesman Jonathan Urich said Sunday in response to the expose.

Hitting back on their Twitter account, Likud accused the report of ignoring the "millions" of "flesh and blood" Israelis that support them. They have also accused the report of bias, due to the fact that it was produced in conjunction with the liberal-leaning Israeli Alliance.

Netanyahu eventually stepped in himself, calling the incident "bot libel," and claiming that nearly all of those mentioned in the report turned out to be real people. "Boldly, with interminable arrogance, they lie, they say you people speaking online aren't real," he said. Several people mentioned in the report have come forward to say their account is actually their own and denying allegations of secretly being robots.

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If someone is caught organizing an illicit influence campaign, they could end up facing criminal charges for violating Israeli election laws. Gantz has already called for a police investigation into Likud's dodgy campaign financing, as well as demanding the courts to take action against the social media slander.

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