The report of a network of fake social media accounts supporting the Likud are libels meant to help the Blue and White Party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press conference on Monday.
“I thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but it’s not,” Netanyahu said of the Yediot Aharonot-New York Times report. “They say I don’t have support from real people, just from robots. They can’t accept that you, citizens of Israel, support me.
“A million Likud voters are not bots,” Netanyahu added.
Acclaimed journalist Ronen Bergman reported on a network of hundreds of fake social media accounts advocating for Netanyahu, in an exposé in Yediot and the Times hours earlier, but most of the examples given in the story have since spoken up as real, live people.
Netanyahu presented a man named Yoram, who goes by Captain George on Twitter, and whose account was called fake in the report.
Waving, Yoram said: “I’m not a bot. I wasn’t paid... Whatever I write comes from the heart. I see the injustice done to our prime minister and I react... I am a father to three children, six grandchildren and a seventh on the way, and that’s it. I stand behind every word I tweet.”
Netanyahu said “Yoram says what he wants. No one is telling him what to do. It’s one big lie.”
The prime minister called the report “blood libels” in Blue and White leaders’ Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s “home newspaper.”
The report says the fake account network echoed Likud messages and smeared Netanyahu’s political rivals. The content distributed by the network includes accusations of rape and cruel personal attacks on politicians, public figures and entire population groups, as well as Likud campaign ads, materials and posts by the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu. The network includes accounts with real people behind them, who the report conjectures were paid to tweet.
Experts estimated that the network’s content was viewed by Israelis over 2.5 million times.
Bergman’s article was based on a report by the Big Bots Project, a research group backed by the left-wing Tides Foundation, of which American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros’s Open Societies Foundation is a major donor. Netanyahu has repeatedly pointed to the foundation’s contributions to NGOs that are antagonistic to him.
“It’s a fake investigation by a left-wing organization supported by Soros,” Netanyahu said in the press conference.
The Big Bots Project did not find a direct link between the accounts’ operators and the prime minister, his son or any Likud member. The report, however, stated that the accounts “appeared to operate in coordination with the party and Mr. Netanyahu’s reelection campaign.”
The people behind other Twitter accounts named in the Yediot report outed themselves on Monday, saying that they are not bots or paid operatives.
“What is this nonsense? I’m not allowed to support the Right?” Moshe Mahlev of Rishon Lezion told 103FM. Mahlev, who used a photo of a Greek male model for his Twitter account, was used as an example of a pro-Netanyahu bot in the article. He said he had not been called by anyone from Yediot or the Times for a reaction.
“Everything there is real, except for the photo,” Mahlev added. “What do they think, real people don’t vote for Likud in this country?”
Even so, later in the day, Twitter suspended Mahlev’s account.
Another account, called @tamnuniter with a photo of an octopus on his profile, tweeted the cover of Yediot with the message: “What a crazy April Fool’s joke! I tip my hat to you!”
He also tweeted to Bergman: “Hello Ronen, I may prefer to stay anonymous, but under that condition, I would be happy to speak on the phone and correct the infantile nonsense you wrote about me. Send me a private message!”
An account called Ziv Knobler, with a photo of Tom Cruise in the film Top Gun, wrote a reference to a Shlomo Arzi lyric: “Suddenly, a man wakes up in the morning and feels like a bot and starts walking.”
“I smell a libel lawsuit against Yediot,” he added. “There is a limit to the level of lies I can tolerate.”
Likud released a response video to the bots report: “Did you read in Yediot? They’re calling you, Likud voters, bots! They won’t believe how many bots there are – 985,408 voted Likud in 2015... On April 9, the bots will go en masse to the ballots.”
Blue and White’s leaders accused Netanyahu of trying to “steal the election” in a press conference Monday afternoon.
Gantz said the report was “only the tip of the iceberg,” and that “Netanyahu knows he is going to lose; he is stressed.
“All he has left is to spread lies and poison,” Gantz added. “More and more Israelis don’t believe him. His house of cards is collapsing… Netanyahu has no limits. He has lost control of the brakes… We’re here to say, it’s enough, Bibi.”
Lapid called for the Central Elections Committee and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate the claims. He criticized Netanyahu’s “dangerous, crazy lies,” adding that “if Netanyahu doesn’t remain prime minister, he can end up in prison, so he decided he doesn’t care about the rules.”
“Netanyahu is the chief troll,” Lapid said, using a term for someone who harasses people on social media.
A Blue and White source said, in light of some of the real people behind the Twitter accounts coming forward, that there is a difference “between the bots and people being paid to spread fake news and lies under their own accounts and multiple fictitious accounts they set up. This story is potentially a serious breach of electoral law and a criminal offense. Someone is paying for all this.”
The party also disseminated tweets by Captain George/Yaron in which he cursed and used scatological terms to describe the Left.
Shortly after the election was called in December, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Nadav Argaman warned of foreign interference in the election. The Jerusalem Post reported on fake Twitter accounts spreading fake news stories and targeting influential social media accounts; the Foreign Ministry reported large numbers of fake accounts to Twitter, which shut 400 of them down in January and February.Alon Einhorn contributed to this report.
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