Since the beginning of the Netanyahu government’s term, Yariv Levin’s court reform policies have been at the heart of the dispute between the left and right wings, which has led to a series of demonstrations and protests. However, there are indications that the debate is not solely internal, as foreign parties have actively participated in it too.
Last week, the Israeli disinformation watchdog, Fake Reporter tweeted that it had unveiled a network of about 80 fake Twitter accounts, apparently foreign, most of which encouraged people to commit illegal acts as part of a protest against the reforms. Fake Reporter has not yet attributed the network’s activity to any specific entity, but some have argued this activity originated in Iran. If this assumption turns out to be correct, it wouldn’t be the first time Iran had become involved in political discourse in Israel.
In recent years, unknown Iranian individuals have conducted social media operations among the Israeli public, in which they spread false, provocative and inciteful information on a variety of issues. Their aim was to influence the political agenda, deepen the polarization between different groups in society and create distrust between the citizens and the government.
The first significant activity of this type was identified during the April 2019 election – when a network of about 350 fake Iranian Twitter accounts published divisive messages on a variety of political, social and economic issues. Since then, Iranian activists infiltrated WhatsApp and Telegram groups of the Black Flags movement and inflamed tensions between Jews and Arabs during Operation Guardian of the Walls. They also attempted to alter the voting results on the day of the November 2022 elections.
Analyzing Iranian disinformation campaigns
When analyzing Iranian disinformation campaigns in recent years, two unique characteristics can be found, both of which can also be seen in recent activity.
The first is that Iranian activists operate on social media, supposedly to help the promotion of civil protest actions, when in fact they encourage activists to carry out provocative or criminal actions. When Iranians infiltrated Black Flags groups, they encouraged their members to share extreme propaganda materials (such as those comparing Netanyahu to Hitler), in order to widen the publicity of the protests.
The second characteristic is an attempt to harness political Twitter influencers, in order to increase the exposure of the false messages thus creating a false impression regarding their source. In the current case, the fake accounts published their messages in response to tweets by organizations promoting the protests against the reforms.
A SIMILAR technique was spotted in November, when the Iranian tweeters greatly expanded the circulation of their messages by publishing them in responses to well-known political figures on Twitter (such as Yinon Magal and Or-ly Barlev) and misled Twitter users regarding their authenticity.
How can Israel fight Iranian social media disinformation?
The process of promoting the reforms is now only in its initial stages. As a result, we may experience many more weeks of intense public disquiet, fueled by malicious entities who spread provocative and false messages on social media. Accordingly, government organizations, social media platforms and civil society must join hands in the implementation of two important measures, which may reduce the distribution and impact of messages of this type in Israel.
The first step is the establishment of a temporary “war room,” for more efficient debunking and curbing of false information. The establishment of the team, in this case, would not set a precedent. This war room should act differently and focus more on Twitter activity – not only because most Iranian activity in recent years has focused on this platform, but also to serve as a lesson from the past. A day before the November election, the director-general of the Central Elections Committee, Orly Adas, claimed that while cooperation between the committee and Facebook in detecting false information was excellent, a similar partnership with Twitter didn’t exist.
The second step should be perfecting digital literacy programs in Israel, especially those intended for teenagers and the elderly – both of whom are more prone to believe false information and share it on social media. Currently, in areas where the digital arena is constantly developing (which is demonstrated, for example, by the rise of AI-based manipulated media), there is a need to frequently update programs and implement creative pedagogical approaches.
It is worthwhile to learn from Finland, which was recently lauded as the country most resistant to fake news (probably because its media literacy starts already in preschool).
For the senior population, the American MediaWise program can serve as a model for an effective online digital literacy program. Launched during the 2020 presidential election, the program helps the elderly to exercise critical thinking about types of online information through videos, texts and quizzes. Recently, researchers from Stanford University demonstrated that MediaWise significantly improved the resilience of older adults to misinformation.
The writer is a researcher at Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security, Tel Aviv University.