Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir accused anti-government protestors of publishing the personal details of police officers in an attempt to tag them as “traitors” earlier this month. The Israeli police, which is under Ben-Gvir’s command, published a statement shortly after saying the online campaign was likely a “campaign by a foreign country whose purpose is to cause friction in the public.”
Members of the protest movement immediately denied they were behind the messages.
A few hours later, Ben-Gvir posted a clarification on his Twitter account.
“I am hopeful that these tweets are indeed not from within us (even though the involvement of a foreign country is extremely serious),” he tweeted. “I will always continue to support the police in the face of attacks against them.”
Many believe it was Iran
Many believe Iran, Israel’s arch-rival, to be behind the campaign.
In recent years, Ben-Gvir has been critical of the police, claiming the body has not responded adequately to Israel’s challenges. His criticism mounted when he was sworn in as national security minister six months ago, leading to increased tension between him and senior police officers.
The apparent fake news campaign seemed designed to exploit Israel’s vulnerabilities. Israel is facing an internal divide after months of anti-government protests. The coalition-backed judicial reforms have been the source of massive demonstrations and unrest in the country.
“This is not the first time in which we see such foreign intervention,” Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and head of the institute's Democracy in the Information Age program, told The Media Line.
She explained that the campaign shared by Ben-Gvir was part of an attempt to pit the pro- and anti-judicial reform camps against one another.
According to FakeReporter, an Israeli online disinformation and malicious activity watchdog, the latest attempt is the result of a lengthy effort by a foreign entity that began in April this year. The entity infiltrated groups on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp in order to influence Israeli discourse. The effort reportedly began when hundreds of fake Twitter accounts were created in minutes.
“The writing has been on the wall for months,” FakeReporter tweeted. “The safety of the citizens of Israel and the state online has been abandoned, and when there is no one to take care of this, even the national security minister falls for it.”
For Ben-Gvir, the doxxing and shaming of several police officers who apparently supported the reforms was an opportunity to lash out at the opposition. Ben-Gvir, who has been a champion of the judicial reforms, accused the anti-reform camp of crossing a “red and dangerous” line.
But when the police said a foreign country was probably behind the campaign, Ben-Gvir was forced to acknowledge a different, no less threatening reality.
“Iran’s biggest amplifier is Itamar Ben-Gvir,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “This is one of Iran’s greatest successes.”
Ben-Gvir’s initial tweet received over 320,000 views. Since he did not delete the tweet after posting a correction, the disinformation can still be forwarded, allowing the campaign’s influence to increase.
“First and foremost, what is most concerning is the exposure of details of police officers, street-level bureaucrats, because this puts them in real danger, coupled with a minister in Israel who echoed this further,” Dr. Gal Yavetz from the Department of Information Science at Bar-Ilan University told The Media Line.
Should a foreign country be behind the latest attempt, it would not be the first to conduct an internet disinformation campaign against a rival. Russia is believed to have been behind an effort to meddle in the 2016 US elections, boosting the candidacy of Donald Trump. Russia also apparently conducted a fake news campaign against Ukraine alongside its military offensive, spreading disinformation about the presence of biological weapons labs in Ukraine in an attempt to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its Western allies.
Facing a sharp internal divide, Israel is now fertile ground for the spread of disinformation about wedge issues. Ben-Gvir apparently fell straight into that trap.
“It would make sense that a country hostile to Israel would want to create dissent,” Dr. Tal Pavel, founder and director of CyBureau—The Institute for Cyber Policy Studies, told The Media Line.
“The Iranians are looking to increase the hate and distrust against the police and they succeeded in doing so through Israel’s national security minister,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “By doing so, he risked the police officers.”
The police did not comment on whether the published details of the officers were correct. According to Shwartz Altshuler, a partial review confirmed the accuracy of the details.
Misinformation is not just coming from Ben-Gvir
Ben-Gvir is not alone in spreading misinformation.
A study published in 2018 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab found that fake news was 70% more likely to be retweeted than actual news.
Systematically addressing fake news is of crucial importance, but according to Yavetz, actually doing so may be impossible.
“It would be similar to someone standing on a train track with a fast-speed train approaching—destined to colossal failure,” he said. “Even if fought on a case-to-case basis, every fake news [item] that is removed will be quickly replaced by new, false content.”
Many have looked to technology, which has been used to rapidly disseminate fake news, as a potential means of quelling disinformation.
Pavel expressed doubts that suitable technology for the job exists.
“We can’t put all our hopes in technology,” Pavel said. “We need to consider our roles as citizens and as consumers, on how we consume media.”
Yavetz, too, said that media literacy is a crucial tool in the fight against fake news.
“People need to be educated on media literacy,” Yavetz said. “People need to stop for a few seconds before they share everything they receive. The potential is devastating.”
Fake news can often be identified by the style of language used. Disinformation is often characterized by short sentences filled with sentiment, exclamation marks, and question words, which are uncommon in credible news reporting. Cross-referencing a news item seen on social media can help consumers avoid misinformation.
The most recent disinformation campaign could have been identified by the many newly created fake accounts involved and the use of incorrect Hebrew.