Gov't report: Bot network operating Eurovision boycott campaign

Strategic Affairs Ministry says Twitter removed 57 accounts after its investigation.

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May 3, 2019 15:45
3 minute read.
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013.. (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

A report issued Thursday by the Strategic Affairs Ministry alleged that hundreds of fake bot accounts were utilized in a social media campaign calling for a boycott of the upcoming Eurovision in Tel Aviv.

According to the report, the ministry identified 232 fake Twitter accounts, including 166 bots. The network operated “to create an impression of significant public support aimed at pressuring European broadcasting corporations and artists participating in the competition to succumb to the boycott,” the ministry claimed.

“The antisemitic BDS activists are trying every deceptive way to attack Israel, even when dealing with Eurovision which aims to unite people and cultures,” Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said Thursday. “We have now proven that the boycott organizations are not only antisemitic and support terror, but lie and fabricate support for their agenda.”

The ministry said it began investigating the issue in November 2018. Last month, it sent information on the 232 accounts in question to both Twitter and the European Broadcasting Union. As of Thursday, the ministry said, 57 of the accounts have been closed.

Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan (Sivan Farag)

A spokesman for the ministry told The Jerusalem Post Thursday that Twitter responded to its report by saying that it “took action,” but did not detail its reasoning for the accounts it chose to remove and those it left operational.

A spokeswoman for Twitter told the Post on Thursday that it “suspended a small group of accounts for violating our regular spam rules, in line with our commitment to improving healthy conversations on the service.” It would not respond to requests about its decision-making process or the other accounts flagged by the ministry.

The ministry’s report, titled “The Big Scam: How BDS is Manipulating Social Media Against Eurovision 2019,” also accused the groups behind the campaign of having ties to Hamas.

The effort, it said, is coordinated by PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a group based in Ramallah. PACBI is a founding member of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee, BNC, which lists as one of its key supporters the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine. That group, Israel has long claimed, is directly linked to several groups that are designated as terrorist organizations by both the US and Israel, including Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The ministry’s report, conducted over a period of several months, worked to identify Twitter accounts as fakes, trolls and bots based on their activity. The study flagged accounts which carried out suspicious behavior, including tweeting at uncharacteristically short intervals – in one case, eight times a minute – and exhibiting an abnormal average daily tweet rate.
According to the report, the activity of these accounts reached more an estimated 10 million Twitter users. The ministry said it had traced some of the accounts back to France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Egypt and Indonesia.

In March, the Foreign Ministry said it worked with Twitter to shut 400 accounts that were part of “foreign manipulation networks” working to influence Israel’s election. And in November the social media platform deleted more than 10,000 accounts which were working to discourage voting in the US election.

By those metrics, the number of accounts identified by the Strategic Affairs Ministry is relatively insignificant. But the report issued Thursday said it believed “that the number of bots and fake accounts used in this deception scheme is much greater than the findings of this report.”

Despite the boycott campaign’s efforts – and those waged through more traditional media – the upcoming Eurovision has been largely untouched by the boycott campaign.

Not a single country or broadcaster pulled out of the upcoming contest for political reasons. When the competition kicks off later this month, 41 contestants from around the globe will take the stage – and every one of them has already visited Israel to film a promotional clip.

“I am happy that this year’s participants did not surrender to these lies and bigotry, and are coming to Israel,” Erdan said. “I hope that other artists planning on coming will understand that there is no extensive support for BDS, and it is all just a fake campaign.”


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